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V annith Uy is the owner of what translates from Khmer as a "mobile nail salon", although the word salon is a stretch. Three years ago, when she arrived from the countryside, Uy had a different plan. She wanted to open a hair and beauty salon on proper premises in the Cambodian capital. The man was a police general who frequented the beer garden where Uy worked as a kitchen help, she says. He bought Chamnan for six days and nights. She was allowed to call her mother once a day.
Uy received cash payment in full, but her planned salon never materialised. The money that had represented a life-changing sum — equivalent to around five years' salary in her home village in Kandal province — soon trickled away. Uy had greatly underestimated the task of clawing her way out of hardship; her stricken expression as she talks suggests she also miscalculated the personal costs of selling her daughter's body to try.
Where to begin unravelling the shadowy, painful layers of Uy and Chamnan's story? It is not straightforward. Often overlooked by more dramatic tales of enslavement in brothels, the trade in virgins is one of the most endemic forms of sexual exploitation in Cambodia. It is a market sustained by severe poverty and ingrained gender inequality. Its clients are influential Cambodian men and other members of Asia's elite who enjoy total impunity from a corrupt justice system.
Most misunderstood of all, many of those involved in the transactions are not hardcore criminals. They are mothers, fathers, friends and neighbours. Cambodia is far FROM the only place where women and girls are treated as commodities. But in this country of 15 million people, the demand for virgins is big business that thrives due to cultural myth and other local factors.
The belief that sex with virgins increases male vigour has long held sway among powerful men in Asia, including Chairman Mao and North Korea's Kim dynasty. Parents who sell their daughters' virginity have little concept of child rights. Based on Licadho's work inside communities, Pung estimates that "many thousands" of virgins aged between 13 and 18 are sold every year. As well as rich Cambodians, men from countries such as China, Singapore and Thailand are regular buyers, too.