Sex workers wait for customers at a karaoke bar in Toul Kork, Phnom Penh, prior to a nationwide crackdown on brothels this year that has driven prostitutes from organized establishments onto the streets.
A lone, razor-thin girl shivering in the rain underneath a streetlight and a man selling condoms are some of the only remaining reminders of a teeming red light district at the far end of Phnom Penh’s Street 70 that flourished until recently, when a government crackdown put the country’s sex industry under siege.
Country-wide brothel closures and raids on dark parks where working girls and their customers gather are hallmarks of the effort to tackle rampant prostitution in Cambodia
ahead of a key assessment next month of the Kingdom’s anti-trafficking
efforts by the US State Department.
But advocates say that new legislation enacted in February to curb trafficking and sexual
exploitation has really only given authorities a license to rape and
rob – evidenced by the spiraling number of reported abuse cases at the
hands of police rousting former brothel workers from their perches in
parks and on street sides.
“What is happening is that the police are
confiscating property – chairs, tables – from outside karaoke bars,
they’re taking everyone’s jewelry,” said one source who did not want to
be named but who has repeatedly visited public places where prostitutes
gathered to monitor the nightly raids by the authorities.
Worse still, allegations and first-hand accounts are piling up that
prostitutes are being arrested and some raped before being forced to
pay money in exchange for their release, the source said.
At the heart of the problem, advocates say, is a flawed law that equates all
commercial sex work with human trafficking, what Cheryl Overs of the
Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) calls a “conflation of
prostitution and trafficking.”
“It assumes that sex work is
inherently degrading and therefore that you cannot consent to it – like
you can’t consent to slavery – so all sex workers become victims of
trafficking,” she told the Post.
Critics of Cambodia’s “Law on
the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” said it
is so broad and open to interpretation by authorities that even those
unwittingly associating with sex workers can be arrested for
For example, a mototaxi driver carrying a prostitute to work or a bar
owner whose establishment is being used as a rendezvous could
theoretically be prosecuted and risk having their property seized.
Offering one’s sexual services for money is now also illegal for the
first time, whereas in the past only pimping and procurement could be
This zero-sum approach, with its arrests and mass brothel closures,
also does little more than drive prostitutes deeper underground – more
vulnerable to trafficking and further away from the legion of public
health groups who have been instrumental in curbing Cambodia’s HIV/Aids
The Ministry of Health’s National Center for HIV/Aids, Dermatology and
STD Control has reported a recent 26 percent reduction in the number of
women seeking diagnosis and treatment for sexually transmitted
infections at their family health clinics.
Implementation of the law is “having serious negative public health
consequences and threatens Cambodia’s remarkable success in cutting HIV
prevalence from 2.0 percent in 1998 to 0.9 percent in 2007,” said a
United Nations, donor and civil society position statement released May
The statement only underscores the infighting caused by the
controversial legislation that has hobbled the UN agencies and health
NGOs who are meant to be monitoring its implementation.
UNICEF funding and support helped create the legislation but other
world body agencies including the UN’s Inter-agency Project on Human
Trafficking (UNIAP) have reservations about how it will be enforced and
say that without strict implementation, the legislation does more harm
“At all the agencies, the anti-trafficking wing of one is working
against the other – this is more than one hand not knowing what the
other is doing, they are actively working against each other,” said
“The Cambodian government itself mirrors that lack of cohesion at the UN level.”
One Cambodian institution that is fully behind the new legislation is
the police, according to the force’s head of anti-trafficking, Bith Kim
Hong, who dismissed concerns over the law’s impact on the control of
“NGOs that work with HIV/Aids think differently from the police,” he told the Post on May 13.
“Stopping [brothels] from existing is better than having brothels …
when there are no brothels HIV/Aids cannot spread to other people,” he
Kim Hong denied reports from groups like the Women’s Network for Unity
(WNU) that large numbers of prostitutes were being rounded up under the
law’s soliciting clause, only to emerge from jail stripped of their
money and possessions, or showing signs of physical and sexual abuse.
“It is not true police are using this law to arrest and extort money
from the suspects. We never arrest prostitutes but rather we save them
from brothels,” he said.
“We hand them over to the social ministry to take care of them. It is
no problem for [prostitutes] when brothels are closed. They can learn
different professions from the ministry and local NGOs.”
However, this support from either the government or NGOs is rarely
forthcoming, say groups like the WNU, leaving these women little choice
but to continue taking more risks.
“When orderly organized venues are being closed, it becomes a buyers market,” said Overs.
Cambodia’s new trafficking law and the ensuing sex industry crackdown
serves as a backdrop to next month’s reassessment of the country’s
anti-trafficking efforts by the US with significant amounts of funding
at risk should the country be downgraded.
Cambodia in 2006 was elevated from the list’s lowest designation, Tier 3, and has remained on Tier 2 Watch since then.
In an interview with the Post on May 8, US Ambassador to Cambodia
Joseph Mussomeli said “it’s a very close call” as to whether Cambodia
is a Tier 2 country or not.
“The issue is, are they doing this just to keep the Americans off their
back or are they doing this because they are concerned about their
“My view is at the highest levels of government there is a genuine
concern for the people of Cambodia that they should not be trafficked,”
he said. (Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)