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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The fight to survive

The fight to survive

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Shunned by her family because of her sexual orientation, Sou Sotheavy

ran away from home and soon after started selling sex. Fifty years later, the HIV-positive

career prostitute is an outspoken champion for the rights of sex industry workers.

Vong Sokheng tells her story.

Sou Sotheavy started tricking in the park near Independence Monument in 1952 at age 14.

From an early age Sou Sotheavy knew she was different from her 15 siblings. Though

born a boy, with the physical attributes of her brothers, she thought of herself

as a girl.

"My parents asked me to change ... but I couldn't because of my nature,"

Sotheavy remembers. "They told me that they would lose face and reputation if

I still lived with them."

So, at 14 years old, Sotheavy left her family and sought refuge at Wat Lanka in Phnom

Penh, struggling to survive and grappling with her attraction to boys.

Three months later, she started hanging out at the park near Independence Monument,

offering herself for sex. It would be the start of a lifetime career in prostitution.

Sotheavy, now 67, is unabashed about her life as a sex worker and proud that her

expertise in "talking and touching" has managed to support her throughout

the tumultuous shifts in Cambodia's recent history.

While Cambodia was still a French colony and Sotheavy a teenager, she began a relationship

with a French client that lasted until he left in 1970.

"His name was Guillaume, and he was a nice man and always supported me for schooling,

food and clothes," she says. "We didn't live together, but we met most

every weekend."

After Guillaume left, Sotheavy worked providing medical services to American military

advisers in the early 1970s. The job spawned several profitable affairs with US soldiers.

"Many foreigners love my physical style," says Sotheavy, whose clients

have always been men.

When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, Sotheavy's trans-gender sex-work singled her

out for persecution and her effeminate behavior earned her a year in a Takeo prison.

Inside, she struck up secret relationships with several of the guards.

"[When] selling sex in Pol Pot regime [I] just exchanged for food and clothes,"

she says.

Even after she was released, Sotheavy says she maintained long relationships with

her Khmer Rouge captors.

During the 1980s, Sotheavy continued to earn a living selling sex, and when the United

Nations took control of the country in the early 1990s, the job turned particularly

lucrative.

But while the influx of thousands of UNTAC soldiers increased the business prospects

for sex workers, it also multiplied the risks of contracting HIV.

In 1993 Sotheavy fell ill with what she thought was malaria, but a blood test confirmed

she was HIV-positive.

"I was told that I had SIDA [the French acronym for AIDS], although I was not

shocked because at that time I didn't know about the disease."

She speculates that she might have contracted the virus from UNTAC soldiers - because

she had many military clients and made a lot of money from them - but cannot be certain.

When she became sick in 1995, Sotheavy had no idea what treatments were available

for AIDS or where to get them, so she resorted to traditional cures for her symptoms.

"I had to just grind sdao [bitter leaves] and sometimes bondol pich [a vine

commonly added to rice wine] to make a juice to drink when my temperature was high,"

she says.

"I don't know how effective it really is, but after I drink it, it makes me

feel good. Up until now I don't take ARVs [anti-retroviral drugs] because my health

is good."

These days, despite her HIV-positive status and age, Sotheavy continues on as a sex

worker, recently taking a trip abroad with a client. Over the years she has visited

India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam with her partners.

"I tell my clients that I have the HIV virus, but they do not hate me,"

she says. "In fact, they ask me to take care of my health."

Sotheavy is one of the most well-known transgender men (who often prefer to be called

srei sros, or "pretty women"), and according to her estimates, there are

approximately 1,000 transgender sex workers just in Phnom Penh.

In 1999 Sotheavy joined the Women's Network for Unity (WNU), often referred to as

the "prostitutes' union" and since has become a leading figure in the transgender

community.

The WNU was a powerful lobby last year against plans to test an anti-retroviral drug

called Tenofovir on sex workers. It is also one of the few NGOs that have refused

to apply for USAID funding due to their requirement for organizations to explicitly

oppose prostitution.

The network has about 5,000 members in 13 provinces and is headquartered on a boat

on the Tonle Sap that also houses Womyn's Agenda for Change.

WNU's members are organized into teams of between five and 20 workers who support

each other and coordinate with headquarters.

At the grassroots level, the teams of sex workers distribute condoms, educate colleagues

about HIV/AIDS, encourage prostitutes to look out for each other, and take people

to the hospital if they are sick or suspect they have HIV.

Members are sex workers and give their time on a volunteer basis. As a collective,

they push the key issues that affect them most: violence, rape, discrimination and

access to health care.

"The biggest danger is gang rape," Sotheavy says. "We are using condoms,

but because of the gang rapes and the drunk men, we are powerless to protect ourselves."

Donor countries spend millions of dollars in Cambodia fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic

through health care, education and advocacy, but many of these services are shut

off to sex workers, either formally through policy requirements or through stigma.

"Because we are sex workers, we cannot get access to funding to improve health

care [services]. We are considered useless human beings," Sotheavy says.

Prostitutes who have already contracted HIV find it difficult to access health services

- Sotheavy estimates that only one in 100 sex workers with AIDS receives anti-retroviral

drugs - and often face social isolation in addition to their medical condition.

"Our network is not demanding the legalization of prostitution, but we need

rights and better protection for us [as] human beings," she says.

Within the WNU Sotheavy is known not only for her hard work and commitment but for

a quick temper.

Keo Tha, director of WNU, has worked with Sotheavy since 2001 and praises her work

for the collective. Tha admits, however, that members are not always thrilled about

Sotheavy's habit of slapping those who anger her.

In spite of hardships, Sotheavy has always managed to get through - alive, but alone.

Her parents and most of her siblings died during the Khmer Rouge regime. The one

sister Sotheavy knows about does not want to make contact with her unconventional

"sister". Sotheavy told the Post she has no close friends that could be

interviewed for this story.

Despite more than a decade living with HIV, Sotheavy has her health. She has her

work as a veteran of the "talking and touching" game. And these days, she

has the ability to help those entering the profession she took up 53 years ago.

"There are many reasons that force people to work within the sex industry such

as poverty, trafficking, discrimination and lack of education," Sotheavy says.

"I think that everybody has to realize that prostitutes are human too."

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