Commentary / World

Behind the scenes with Phnom Penh's 'orange girls'

by Sarah Rooney

PHNOM PENH — In central Phnom Penh, at one end of a semiderelict building, is a tiny lean-to shack. Its walls are made of scavenged wood planks and its roof of corrugated iron. The ground around it is a swamp of sewage and mud due to the daily monsoon rains. To get to the shack, you have to hop along a desultory path of discarded bricks.

The one-room interior is surprisingly, and girlishly, tidy. Two wooden beds sit on either side of the small space. Clothes hang against the walls in neatly ordered lines. Makeup carefully tied into a plastic bag dangles from a nail in the wall. Underneath one of the beds is a single clue as to who the inhabitants are: a large tub of oranges.

This shack is home to three of Phnom Penh’s infamous “kroukh chrorbakh,” or “orange girls.” Though their trade dates back to a time when innocent young women sold oranges to day-trippers in the city’s once-lush parks, there is no longer anything idyllic about being an orange girl. A few decades ago, as economic times grew tough, orange girls began offering an extra service to attract customers — with every orange, the chance to squeeze the girl’s breasts for free. Today, the women wander the city’s parks at night and will have sex for as little as 6,000 riel, or just under $2.

Phnom Penh’s orange girls represent the bottom of the barrel for Cambodia’s sex-workers. The men who patronize them are among the city’s poorest, mostly construction workers and cyclo drivers. The women work alone and social welfare organizations say they are often victims of verbal abuse, police violence and gang rape. Now, an even more ominous threat looms: Cambodia has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in Southeast Asia, and the orange girls are one of the highest-risk groups in the country.

The shack is divided into three sections. Jira Phorn, a striking 22-year-old with a stern face and a shy manner, lives with her boyfriend in the cheapest corner — a piece of floor covered with plastic sheeting that costs 500 riel a night (about 15 cents). Like most orange sellers, Jira Phorn’s story is a tragic one. She tells it in a matter-of-fact, emotionless manner, as if she were a secretary describing another monotonous day at the office.

One of 16 children from a farming village in eastern Cambodia, Jira Phorn was 18 when her father, a horse-cart driver, arranged her marriage. Her husband left her for another woman two years into their relationship. Unable to face the shame of living as an abandoned woman, Jira Phorn fled to Phnom Penh. She found a job in a candy factory where she worked from 3 a.m. to 11 p.m. for 1,500 riel a day (just under 50 cents). When she met some orange girls who told her there was a way to make more money working fewer hours, she decided to give it a go.

“When I first heard about the orange girls, I didn’t really know what they did. I thought they just sold oranges,” says Jira Phorn, absentmindedly swatting away the flies that hover in the ovenlike air of the shack. “On my first night I had no idea what to do. Men came up to me and asked for an orange and I was too shy to do anything. I was so frightened my body was shaking. Then a man called me over to where he was sitting and my friends convinced me to go. I peeled an orange and made a hole in it so he could suck the juice out. He used one hand to hold the orange and the other hand to touch my body. He touched me everywhere.”

Two years later, Jira Phorn’s work has become routine. Each day she buys two dozen oranges from the local market. At around 6:30 p.m. she and a handful of other orange girls walk to a nearby park, where they spread out separately or in small groups, and spend the evening coaxing men to buy an orange, and a squeeze, for 500 riel. On a good night Jira Phorn can make 10,000 riel (about $2.50).

“Sometimes, one man will buy up to 10 oranges,” she says. “Sometimes, they won’t stop touching me. When one man refused to stop, I told him if he didn’t buy another orange he couldn’t touch me anymore. He slapped my face.”

So Pheakh rents the cheaper of the two beds in the shack, which she shares with her boyfriend and her 8-year-old son. She is 28 years old and has a beautiful, almost regal, smile. She also turned to selling oranges when her husband ran off with his mistress. For her it was a simple equation: “I became an orange girl because I needed to earn money to buy milk for my son,” she says. Eight years on she is still selling oranges.

So Pheakh hasn’t made enough money to pay her rent for the last couple of days. If the rent isn’t paid for three consecutive days, the landlord will evict the women. So Pheakh blames her lack of earnings on the police. “They intimidate our potential customers,” she says. “They come up to us, scold us and kick our oranges away.” The police also demand bribe money from the orange girls to keep them out of jail. It used to be that if the women didn’t pay, the police cut their hair off to prevent them from working. Now, says So Pheakh, the police simply shave all their hair off, leaving the women completely bald. (In Cambodia only widows and nuns have shaved heads.)

A stony-faced woman wielding a grubby notebook appears at the door of the shack. The orange girls crowd around her waving well-worn 100-riel notes. This is the woman they buy their clothes from. Since they can’t afford to purchase their dresses outright, they must pay for them on a weekly basis, as a sort of mortgaged wardrobe.

The most expensive bed in the hut is the one that is highest off the floor. It costs 1,500 riel and belongs to Srey Kukh, a pretty 24-year-old with an infectious, childlike giggle. Like the other women in this shack, Srey Kukh came to Phnom Penh after her philandering husband left her destitute. She ended up in a brothel because she lacked the skills or contacts for any other type of job.

Life in the brothel was restricting and harsh. “I couldn’t even go out with a boyfriend because the brothel owner would make him pay to see me. If he didn’t pay, the brothel owner would take the money from my wages,” says Srey Kukh. She left the brothel and became an orange girl. “When I was in the brothel I had to sleep with four or five men a night. As an orange seller I only have to go with one or two clients a night.”

This comparative freedom comes at a price. “Sometimes I go back with a client to his room and there are other men waiting. Once, I went back with a man to his guesthouse and there were six other men there.” They all had sex with her. After a long pause, Srey Kukh adds, “and they only paid for one man.”

Tun Samphy, a social worker who counsels orange girls, labels such instances gang rape. “These women are regularly gang-raped by up to 10 or 15 men at a time,” she says. “In many cases, the women have to walk home without their dresses.” Tun Samphy works for the Urban Sector Group, an organization partly funded by Family Health International. The organization works with slum dwellers in Phnom Penh, and Tun Samphy visits orange girls daily, teaching them how to look after their health and plan their finances and futures.

“These women face discrimination from 100 percent of society,” says Tun Samphy. “People believe they are destroying Khmer traditions and they are seen as bad women.” Sex before marriage is frowned upon in Cambodia and the common phrase for a sex worker, which is the same as for a woman who has lost her virginity, translates simply as “broken woman.” A popular Cambodian saying likens women to a piece of cloth that, once stained (by loss of virginity), can never be cleansed.

“Some people jeer at us when we walk past them in the park,” says Jira Phorn. “They call us names and say things like ‘Why are you wearing such a long skirt? Why don’t you wear something short and sexy so it’s easier for us to touch you?’ ” None of the women in this shack have told their parents what they do. Srey Toukh, a 24-year-old angelic-faced orange girl who lives nearby, says, “My mother doesn’t know that I go with men or that I let them touch my body, and I could never tell her as I would be too ashamed. She thinks I just sell oranges.”

Cambodia has the most severe HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia. The epidemic is primarily sexually transmitted and FHI estimates one-third of the country’s female sex workers could be HIV positive. However, experts have noted a recent reduction in the rates of infection among sex workers, a positive sign that the World Health Organization attributes mainly to a “100 Percent Condom Use” program supported and promoted by the Cambodian government. (These days, most brothels insist that customers use condoms.)

It could be some time before the positive effects of the condom policy trickle down to the orange girls. Freelance sex-workers often fall outside the reach of such health schemes, and lack the ability to implement them. “The orange girls will be harder hit by AIDS than any other type of sex worker because they have no ability to choose and no control over their clients,” says Dr. Sok Sophal, a medical doctor working to promote AIDS awareness among Phnom Penh’s street children through a charitable organization called Mith Samlanh.

Tun Samphy fears that many orange girls are already HIV positive. Though they assure her they use condoms, she is skeptical. “You think those men who gang-rape them bother to put on condoms?” she asks. So Pheakh claims she makes all her clients wear condoms: “If they don’t agree, I don’t agree!” she says proudly. She rattles off the slogan like an advertising jingle and it has similarly hollow ring.

Tun Samphy is also wary of the orange girls’ boyfriends. “Even if they do use condoms with some of their clients, they don’t with their boyfriends,” she says. “The boyfriends just use the women for sex and money,” she adds, explaining that “good” Cambodian women would never have sex with their boyfriends before marriage. (As my translator succinctly put it: “The boyfriends suck their blood.”)

Jira Phorn met her partner when he brought some oranges from her in the park. “I was happy when we met because he said he would feed me and I could stop doing this work. But then he lost his job (as a construction worker).” So Pheakh’s boyfriend is unemployed as well. When asked what he thinks of the work his girlfriend has to do to support him, he said, “I feel very unhappy with her business. No man wants his woman to do this kind of work. But I cannot earn any money to feed us so she has to do it. The only thing I can do is close my eyes to it.”

It is 7 p.m. and the rain has just stopped. Only a few orange girls will go out tonight since there won’t be many customers in the damp park. The shack looks oddly cozy at night. Flickering candlelight glistens in the water that has seeped up into the floor of the hut and the women who are not going out have curled up for the evening. So Pheakh lies on her bed giggling with her boyfriend as he playfully pinches her cheeks. Jira Phorn and her boyfriend lie arm-in-arm murmuring to each other on her patch of floor.

Srey Kukh and her visiting friend Srey Toukh, meanwhile, are dressed up and ready to go to work. Their faces are garishly made up like porcelain dolls with pale foundation, kohl-rimmed eyes and scarlet-red lips. The sky looks stormy and they are in a rush to woo some customers before the next rainfall. As the women leave the shack, they hitch up their skirts to skip over the puddles of sewage, and clutching their plastic bags of oranges, they hurry off into the night.