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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Groups blast US sex-work policies

Groups blast US sex-work policies

IN a report due to be released today, rights groups have called for the United States to review policies on human trafficking that they say have undermined efforts to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Cambodia while fuelling widespread human rights violations.

Sara Bradford, a human rights consultant and contributing author, said yesterday that the release of the report – compiled by the US-based NGO Centre for Health and Gender Equity in concert with the Centre for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University’s Washington College of Law – was timed to coincide with an upcoming visit from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is due to arrive in Cambodia on Saturday for a two-day state visit.

“We have timed the release to coincide with Secretary Clinton’s visit in hopes of bringing attention to the dire human rights situation in Cambodia,” Bradford said via email.

“The US offers millions of dollars of anti-trafficking aid to Cambodia, and they should be aware of the reality on the ground. Sex workers are regularly rounded up by police in the name of ending human trafficking and sent to illegal detention facilities where they are often raped, beaten and faced with a multitude of other human rights violations.”

The report argues that US policies – which have influenced Cambodian laws and the operations of NGOs receiving US funding – endanger sex workers and hamper efforts to curb human trafficking and the spread of HIV/AIDS by conflating human trafficking with prostitution.

“Conflating human trafficking with prostitution results in ineffective anti-trafficking efforts and human rights violations because domestic policing efforts focus on shutting down brothels and arresting sex workers, rather than targeting the more elusive traffickers,” states the report. “Moreover, a growing body of research finds that sex workers’ high risk of HIV infection is due in part to their marginalised and illegal status.”

In February 2008, Cambodia passed the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, which includes eight articles referring to the criminalisation of adult prostitution or aspects of adult prostitution. The law forbids prostitution and the solicitation of sex; any item that “excites or stimulates sexual desire”, including condoms; and activities viewed as supporting human trafficking. As punishment for all such offences, it calls for fines of between 3,000 and 10,000 riels (US$2.50) and one to six days in prison.

According to the report, the law “did not arise as a result of an internal demand by Cambodian citizens”, but was introduced “under pressure from the US to crack down on
trafficking”.
A July 2010 report from Human Rights Watch said hundreds of prostitutes were arrested and abused without being officially charged after the law was passed.
Bradford urged the US to “provide assitance and input on how to effectively enforce anti-trafficking legislation without further marginalising at-risk populations”.

A copy of the report, along with a policy brief, she said, would be sent to the US embassy in Phnom Penh, which declined to comment when contacted late yesterday.

Bith Kimhong, head of the Department of Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection at the Ministry of Interior, yesterday defended the anti-trafficking law, arguing that it made it easier for officials to curb trafficking and protect sex workers.

“This law is very important because it is like an instrument for the police to use for preventing, stopping and eliminating human trafficking,” he said. He said the law did not prevent women from providing sex services from their own homes. By banning brothels, he said, the law protects sex workers from being exploited by brothel owners.
“The sex workers who work at the brothel are victims because they are under control of someone else,” he said.

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