Magazine article Geographical

Forbiden Fruit: Visitors to Phnom Penh Used to Be Charmed by the Women Who Sold Oranges in the City's Beautiful Parks. but as Times Grew Harder These `Orange Girls' Were Forced to Offer Less Savoury Extras with Their Fruit. Today They Face the Threats of Gang Rape and Infection from HIV in the Aids Capital of Southeast Asia. (Phnom Penh's Sex Trade)

Magazine article Geographical

Forbiden Fruit: Visitors to Phnom Penh Used to Be Charmed by the Women Who Sold Oranges in the City's Beautiful Parks. but as Times Grew Harder These `Orange Girls' Were Forced to Offer Less Savoury Extras with Their Fruit. Today They Face the Threats of Gang Rape and Infection from HIV in the Aids Capital of Southeast Asia. (Phnom Penh's Sex Trade)

Article excerpt

AT ONE END OF A SEMI-DERELICT building in central Phnom Penh is a tiny lean-to shack. Its rough walls are made of scavenged planks and its roof of corrugated iron sheets. The ground around it is a swamp of sewage and mud, the result of 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 stand either side of the small space. Clothes hang against the walls in neatly ordered lines. A carefully tied plastic bag full of make-up dangles from a nail. Underneath one of the beds is a clue to the identity of the inhabitants: a large tub filled with oranges.

This shack is home to three of Phnom Penh's kroukh chrorbakh, or `orange girls'. In a previous, more innocent, age young women sold oranges to day-trippers in the city's once-lush parks. But there is no longer anything idyllic about being an orange girl. As times grew harder they began offering an extra service: "Buy an orange and squeeze my breasts for free." Today the women wander the city's parks at night and will have sex for as little as 6,000 riel (just over 1 [pounds sterling]).

Phnom Penh's orange girls represent the bottom of the barrel for Cambodia's sex workers. The men who patronise them are among the city's poorest -- mostly construction workers and cyclo (tricycle taxi) drivers. The women work alone and are often victims of verbal abuse, police violence and gang rape. Now, a 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 (pictured above with her boyfriend), 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 (about 10p) per night. Like most orange sellers Jira Phorn's story is an epic one, but she tells it in a matter-of-fact manner.

One of 16 children from a farming village in eastern Cambodia, she 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 sweet factory where she worked from 3am to 11pm for 1,500 riel (30p) per day. However, she met some orange girls who told her there was a way to make more money and work fewer hours, and 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. "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 6.30pm she and a handful of other girls walk to a nearby park where they spread out 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 (2 [degrees]). "Sometimes one man will buy up to ten 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 eight-year-old son. She is 28 and has a beautiful, almost regal, smile. …

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