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Innocent children are easy currency in Cambodia's 'virginity trade'

Lon Ven's school for underprivileged children. Credit: ITV News

By Lucy Watson: China Correspondent

Danet is 14, and lives in a house built on wooden stilts with no walls, only tarpaulin for shelter.

There are 11 of them who live in the family home, next to a mosquito-infested pond in a poor, rural community in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

She loves to read fairytales, but she frowns a lot and her eyes have a haunted gaze.

At the age of 10, she was locked in a guesthouse bedroom for days, at the mercy of a British paedophile. Her mother sold her for a week for $750 (£437).

Her virginity was part of the allure, but surely that’s irrelevant. This was a child sold by her parents to be raped by a sex offender. Unfathomable.

Danet describes Michael Leach - her convicted abuser, a former government adviser - as “big and cruel looking.” She says, “He didn’t look nice, he looked strange.” The 54 year old is now serving a 12-year jail sentence, so she is less afraid to talk about him.

“I hope he stays put away forever,” she says.

Michael Leach was jailed for 12 years in 2011. Credit: REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea

Selling her virginity, her innocence was a way to feed nine children and pay their debts. Her father earns $5 a day as a motorbike taxi driver and fruit seller.

Her mother was approached and coaxed into the deal by a “broker,” a local driver, who worked for Leach to appease his urge to abuse minors.

“My mother took me there on the first day. The next, my father drove me there. I didn’t want to go but I had to, for my family.”

A mother and a father escorted their child to be raped.

“I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I understood his body language and that he wanted me to take my clothes off. I’m not angry at [my mother]. We are poor and in debt. That’s why she did it to me.“

Her father assures us, “We will never do it again, no matter how poor we are. Even if we have nothing to eat. Even if we have to eat soil. We won’t sell our child again. I feel great pity for my daughter.”

Lon Ven's school for underprivileged children. Credit: ITV News

But the deed has been done. There is no going back, and his daughter cannot and will not recount her ordeal again. She says simply, “It makes me sad.”

The "virginity trade" is rampant in Cambodia, particularly in the capital, and it’s “a big problem” says Tim Huon from Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), a non-governmental organisation that investigates child sex abuse and exploitation here.

Ordinarily, "virgin buying" is popular among “rich, powerful Asian men who believe that if they have sex with a virgin it will bring them good health and good luck, and some think that it will even cure diseases, like HIV.”

This business is often conducted in the city’s karaoke bars where teenage girls work as hostesses, or in brothels, but the trade is burying itself deeper underground, with “middle men” - and women - now controlling the market, targeting impoverished families, but to gather evidence on suspects and perpetrators is incredibly difficult.

Here, it’s illegal for police to use covert tactics to gather evidence on trafficking.

And, this is one of many harrowing tales we’ve heard in just one week in Cambodia.

In the tourist-haven of Siem Reap, we watched 33-year-old Long Ven - a former Cambodian monk - be arrested, in the culmination of a four-month investigation. He’s accused of running a fake English Language School in the countryside.

Online he appealed for donations and "volunteers," claiming he was caring for orphans, but all of his students lived within the surrounding community and had parents.

Lon Ven has been accused of running a fake English Language School in the Cambodian countryside. Credit: ITV News

This was not a residential facility, yet 60 children were in his care, and he allowed Western paedophiles to visit them.

He let men take children on day trips and rented a separate house in the town where he allowed them to spend time with two boys. Investigators also found conversations on social networking sites where he discussed trafficking Asian girls under 10 to Eastern Europe, and the ease with which he could do it.

The intelligence gathering involved two former Australian detectives who work for the Cambodian Children’s Fund Child Protection Unit (CPU). They’re here to teach local police how to gather evidence, how to work a crime scene, how to arrest and question a suspect.

Their work meant the school could be raided this week, and government officials came to see the operation come to fruition, and see the children being interviewed by a special team of counsellors.

Some were as young as three. In recent days, the government made their presence felt when otherwise it seems absent.

The Director of Child Welfare, Oung Sophannara told me, “The reality is that it is very difficult to control institutions in Cambodia. There are so many of them looking after children. Some of them are registered, some are not.”

But his job is to protect children, to make sure more institutions are regulated and the illegitimate ones closed. His response was, “Yes, this is our duty. We have to do it in the future. We must do it, but in reality, we have a lack of resources.”

That is the crux of the problem according to James McCabe from CPU.

“Police are extremely low paid and there is a limited budget for investigations. Some of the basic salaries can be $60 (£35) a month, so the motivation to do a good job is also lacking. What we’ve found is that if you give them some support they want to do their job properly.”

And the difficulties are even more complex than that. The parents of a victim are reluctant to report sex crime because of a culture of impunity in this country, and poverty prevents them from hiring a lawyer or getting the medical care their child may need.

A lack of education means there’s little understanding among children that they can say no.

Child exploitation, of course, is not just a Cambodian problem but a global one. Yet, in a country shattered by war and genocide, that's now developing fast, it’s having to deal with a different crisis.

A crisis that’s evolving and changing guises, but the facts are stark - innocent children are easy currency, and prey to adults hungry to escape poverty.

Some names have been changed for legal reasons.