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In Kampong Speu, a Familiar Tale of Trafficking

SK was a young girl when a 30-year-old woman convinced her to travel out of her home province to look for work. But, after she'd lost her mother's jewelry as payment for the trip, SK was sold into Phnom Penh's sex trade.

SK, who asked that her name not be used, became part of Cambodia's vibrant sex industry, forced to take drugs and "perform services for guests" of a karaoke parlor.

She would take little pink pills and see up to four men each night and only escaped by jumping out a window and calling her father to come and get her.

Now 15, SK is safe at home in Kampong Speu, but her family is filing suit with provincial authorities to bring her abductors to justice and appealing to the government to do more to stop trafficking.

"I lived at that karaoke place for 26 days," SK told VOA Khmer recently. "I was miserable, and I was ashamed. I wanted to commit suicide.... I now think my life has no value, and no future. I think it is my bad karma."

Human trafficking in sex and labor continues to plague Cambodia. SK's story highlights an industry that new laws have so far been able to eradicate. Young girls from the provinces still fall prey to recruiters, who promise legitimate work to the naive and desperate and have little fear of the law.

"We have to solve the issue legally," Kek Galabru, founder of the rights group Licadho, told VOA Khmer. "The perpetrators will have to be charged. When the police, the courts arrest them and then free them, claiming lack of evidence, it is wrong. The perpetrators must be punished according to the law."

Many victims of sex trafficking report similar hopelessness, and they often blame themselves or feel their lives are irreparably damaged. But Kek Galabru said women like SK are victims and must be helped.

"We must not think she did something wrong or has bad karma," she said. "They did something illegal to her and violated her rights."

SK said the owner boasted to clients that she was "new," worth $50 per session.

"I have a request, especially to Prime Minister Hun Sen," SK's father said. "Please help us. If we go to the police, the police just take money and don't work for us. If we go to the court, the court just takes the money and doesn't work for us. When we ask, they say, 'tomorrow,' then 'the day after tomorrow.'"

This had left him feeling hopeless as well, the father said.

"The perpetrators are walking with their hands dangling, complacent, and not afraid at all," he said. "I would like justice for my child, who is a victim, to pay for her compensation and have them punished according to existing law."

SK's lawyer, Heng Poung, said he phoned Kampong Speu's deputy prosecutor, Ou Phat, who claimed charges have been filed with the provincial court.

He expected the sex traffickers to be brought before a judge, Heng Poung said.

The law on human trafficking now says that such perpetrators—anyone who coerces, tricks, or cajoles another person into the sex trade of other forced labor—can face up to 15 years in prison.