Mira Sorvino. Pic: AP.

WHEN U.S. actress Mira Sorvino came to Cambodia last week, a series of stories were released on “ending modern-day slavery.”  Sorvino accompanied the CNN Freedom Project, having experience as United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Goodwill Ambassador Against Human Trafficking to assist the project and keep a journal.

The first story launched from Svay Pak, near the capital Phnom Penh, showed the faces of three Cambodian mothers who had sold their children to traffickers, and thus had become traffickers themselves.  The story was widely circulated on social media and Cambodians expressed shame over it.

Asian Correspondent went to Toul Kork district of Phnom Penh to the office of Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), a sex worker-led collective, to get their thoughts on the story.

“You show the face of the mother, who is so poor that she has to sell her daughter for money?  How does this help the daughter or mother?” asked Ros Sokunthy, Legal Services Manager for WNU.  “It doesn’t.  It helps the NGO to make money.”

While this answer might sound jaded, this is a country which has been flush with international NGOs since opening its borders some two decades ago.  Cambodia receives an estimated US$800 million in aid a year, yet remains one of the poorest countries in SE Asia.

“Did they [the women] consent to have their pictures taken?  Many people don’t know their human rights.  It is a very shameful thing for Cambodians, for the mothers,” said Ros.

The next story is written by Sorvino herself, who visits a ‘KTV club’ (karaoke club) in Phnom Penh and considers that because the women look young, that they must be under-age.  After she takes out her cell-phone, “itching to take a picture,” a girl yells to the management.  She wrote that she did not take the picture but was nevertheless upset when she was suddenly surrounded by club workers who demanded she erase the alleged picture.  The entire event “cemented” in her mind that under-age prostitution was there.

A screenshot of Sorvino's piece on 'child' prostitution. Pic: From CNN website.

“It says at the club door that you cannot take a picture inside.  You are supposed to delete any pictures.  Of course they can sue you…,” explained Pen Sothary, Secretary of WNU and a former sex worker herself.  She said the rules are designed to protect workers’ privacy.

Then Sorvino travels with her companion (her cameraman) to another club, where he asks for “younger, fresher” girls.  When two girls are brought to her, Sorvino is certain the girl sitting next to her is 14 years old.

“She does not know that this girl is 14 years old.  A KTV club does not want to hire an underage girl because it is illegal, they will get arrested.  There are laws against that in Cambodia,” said Ros.

Pen added: “Also sometimes a girl, when she finishes high school, will join a KTV club to earn money to help her family.  She has an awareness of the job.  She is not trafficked.  And a high school boy will become a motor-taxi driver as they cannot join a KTV club.  There is an assumption that they are underage, but it is an assumption.  They consent to do the job.  They know.  They make a choice; it is to help their families.”

Ros summarized that there is a different understanding in rich northern countries of the world compared poor southern countries.  “The girl consents to do the job but is taken away [by NGOs] to ‘improve their skills,’ to get re-education training.  You [Northern NGOs] always think you know what they want, but you don’t even ask them.”

In KTV clubs there are two jobs. One is to entertain the client and then, if they choose, the second job is to do sex work. Wages for entertainment work are about $80 a month while freelance sex work negotiated from an entertainment establishment starts at about $25 to $50 a night, depending on the customer and the club.  This is a sizable amount in a country where half the population lives on $2 a day or less.

(MORE: Asian sex workers: ‘We are proud to feed our families’)

Pen said girls with no education might work on the street as sex workers.  They are even more vulnerable to “re-education” by NGOs. “They are given Tiger Balm, toothpaste and shampoo to sell, but it is not enough to sustain them, so they go back to sex work.”

WNU is aware of the problems that poor children face and has created a school that teaches Khmer writing and English to help sex workers’ children. HIV positive children and poor children living near the schools can join as well.

“The aim of the school is to educate the child of the sex worker.  People complain that the sex worker is uneducated.  The sex worker tends to be mobile and moves a lot,” said Pen. Sex workers’ children are uprooted a lot and often lack confidence.  The school is to help motivate them to learn and to study.  It gives the children something to do “to keep them away from drugs,” concluded Pen.

There have been children who have dropped out of the program to earn money, such as washing motorbikes and working in garment factories.  This is because they come from a poor family that needs money for food, debt, and medical bills.  Some children stop studying because their parents are arrested for sex work and put in jail, so the child has to work to have money to eat.  Poverty presents adult problems to the young in Cambodia.

With the growing wave of land evictions, farmers leave their homes behind to work across the border in Thailand and send money home.  Teenagers also cross the border.

Pen and Ros met a young girl in Thailand earlier this year being held in a detention center.  She was just 14 or 15 years old and had been selling bracelets in Bangkok to earn money to her mother.  She was picked up by police for working illegally and put in a “re-education center” to be taught massage skills.

“She didn’t even know Thai.  Why didn’t they teach her Thai?” asks Ros.  She was expected to be there for 9-12 months.

“The girl was crying after hearing us speak Khmer.  All she wanted to do was go home.  We felt very bad for her but didn’t want to make a problem for the organization that had brought us there,” said Ros.

Ros and Pen have no easy solutions to these complex issues, but think that poverty is the problem.

“By the way, who is Mira Sorvino?” asks Ros.

When told she is an actress in the U.S., Ros asks: “Does she over-act?”