Experts urge greater global awareness of 'vicious cycle' of poverty, trafficking and HIV.
A jury of experts on Thursday called for urgent action to break the cycle of poverty, violence, trafficking and HIV that is ruining the lives of countless women, girls and communities in Southeast Asia.
The declaration was made at the culmination of the Southeast Asia Court of Women on HIV, Human Trafficking and Migration in Bali, Indonesia.
"Women's lives in Southeast Asia are dominated by acute inequality and injustice that make them highly vulnerable to various forms of violence, exploitation, trafficking and, subsequently, HIV," the declaration read.
"We, therefore, call upon all the governments, UN Agencies, civil society organisations, the media and the general public to take all possible steps to expeditiously address the vicious cycle of poverty, violence, trafficking and HIV that trap countless women in the region."
Wanta, a young Cambodian woman who refused to be photographed or allow her real name to be published, told the court of how she was now living with HIV as a result of her experience with traffickers. She acknowledged willingly having gone to Malaysia, where she had expected to work in a garment factory, but instead ended up in a brothel, highlighting the dangers all young women face when travelling abroad to work.
Refusing to work, she was raped repeatedly and starved, she said, before being rescued by police following a tip-off from a sympathetic customer.
Wanta was joined by 21 other survivors of trafficking from the region. Most were from poor backgrounds, exposed to exploitation as they tried to find a way out for their families.
Like Wanta, many were left HIV-positive by their experience of being trafficked into sexually exploitative situations, highlighting what experts at the court said was a tangible link between trafficking and the spread of the disease.
"[Women and girls] are trafficked for many different reasons, but overwhelmingly sexual exploitation remains the single major purpose," said Caitlin Wiesen, regional HIV/Aids practice leader and programme coordinator for the UN Development Programme, a co-organiser of the court.
More than 250,000 women and girls are trafficked every year in Southeast Asia - one-third of total global trafficking - according to UN estimates.
The jurors also called for rights-based policies to counter trafficking and prevent further injustices from being heaped on women after experts singled out Cambodia as a country where officials had gotten policy seriously wrong.
Wiesen said anti-trafficking laws passed last year had led to more women selling sex on the street "for fear of police raids in entertainment establishments, which can drive them further underground and further increase their vulnerability to trafficking and HIV infection."
She said the legislation had led to a "significant setback" for the country's 100-percent condom use programme, with a 31-percent reduction in the sale and availability of condoms in entertainment places and a 20-percent decline in women seeking testing and treatment at public clinics.
Vichuta Ly of Cambodia's Legal Service for Children and Women said the country's trafficking legislation needed to be refocused to protect the victims. Appearing as an expert witness, she also called for a better understanding of trafficking to protect those working voluntarily in the sex industry from harassment and prosecution.