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Couple Service raises eyebrows in Cambodia

Date: 2006-10-07

KER MUNTHIT catches up with the founder of the conservative country’s first-ever dating service.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — On a busy day, Seng Leakhena fields more than 20 telephone calls from clients — men and women who, defying convention, are seeking her help in finding prospective marriage partners.

From a second-story apartment on one of the busiest streets in the Cambodian capital, the casually-dressed 34-year-old entrepreneur runs Couple Service, the first-ever dating agency in this conservative Southeast Asian nation where arranged marriages are the norm.

Seng Leakhena said her trailblazing agency, which has male and female clients, is particularly helpful for women seeking suitable partners in a country where men often get the better deal in life.

Some 80 singles have sought her service since it was quietly launched in January, and two couples she introduced have married.

But her operation is also raising eyebrows among critics who worry about its defiance of tradition in a society where people do not talk openly about sex, and fear that it could exploit women.

Old-style courtship and marriage is an elaborate ritual, involving the man’s parents paying a visit to the woman’s family to formally ask for her hand. Common are consultations with soothsayers over the appropriateness of a match and a propitious date for nuptials.

Sim Sarak, a director-general of the Culture Ministry, said the dating service runs contrary to Cambodian culture and tradition. He and other critics see it as an example of how globalization brings unwelcome social and economic changes, ones that can create ‘‘conflict between generations.’’

‘‘Nowadays, it is difficult to pass on to young people what is deemed by the old generation as good culture and tradition,’’ said Sim Sarak. New, foreign, things like Valentine’s Day, he said, are more easily taken up by the younger generation.

Former Women’s Affairs Minister Mu Sochua, a social activist and a senior member of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, described dating services as a ‘‘double-edged’’ opportunity.

They could work in favor of sophisticated, well-educated women trying to avoid the pressure of arranged marriages, but put poor ones at great risk of sexual exploitation, she said, noting that some dating agencies in the region are a simply a facade for human traffickers.

Seng Leakhena acknowledged she has been operating without a business permit from the government but dismissed suggestions that her firm is a front for trafficking.

‘‘It never crossed my mind,’’ she said. ‘‘What I am doing is simply offering men and women a path to know each other before they decide to get married according to our traditions.’’

She said she got her idea about starting a dating service from reading columns in local magazines where young people wrote in to express interest in seeking partners. Seng Leakhena, who previously worked as a hairdresser and helped manage her aunt’s pharmacy, is herself unmarried.

Testing her hunch, she first made a few phone calls to several young women, who, she said, ‘‘wanted to have male partners but were shy to come out and say it openly.’’

After consulting with friends in Singapore, which has established dating services, she founded her agency, which got off to a shaky start with only six clients in the first four months.

Before visiting her office most clients called to inquire how the service works, she recalled.

They are required to bring pictures of themselves, fill out a form — giving name, sex, date of birth, height, weight, skin color, address, marital status, occupation and hobbies — and deposit a registration fee equivalent to about $20.

Then the applicant needs to sign an agreement attesting to the truthfulness of his or her personal information and releasing the firm of any responsibility if their relationship does not work out.

If a female client is too shy to come to her office to fill out the form, Seng Leakhena said, arrangements can be made to meet with her at a designated location such as a restaurant.

Then it’s a matter of waiting for Seng Leakhena to make a match and pass information about one applicant to another. Among those still biding her time is a 56-year-old woman.

‘‘She is not interested in men younger than her, and I have not yet got any male applicants of her age,’’ Seng Leakhena said.

If two applicants agree to carry on their relationship past an initial meeting, each of them has to pay an additional fee of about $30.

Prak Seng Lim, 28, who was introduced through the service to the woman who became his wife, said the service does not mean the old ways are neglected.

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