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Intl court to hear local voices

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Caitlin Wiesen of UNDP talks at a press conference on Tuesday in Bali, Indonesia.

Two Cambodians are to testify as expert and witness at the Southeast Asia Court of Women on HIV, Human Trafficking and Migration in Bali, Indonesia

BALI, INDONESIA

TWO Cambodian women are to testify before a jury of experts on Thursday at a regional court created to give a voice to survivors of human trafficking.

Wanta, a young Cambodian woman now living with HIV in Phnom Penh, and fellow Cambodian survivor Sophea will join more than 20 other women from the region to share their experiences at The Southeast Asia Court of Women on HIV, Human Trafficking and Migration, which will meet at the Bali International Convention Centre.

Wanta, who has declined to give her real name, will tell of her experiences being trafficked into bonded sex work in Malaysia. Her testimony will form part of a session looking at the human rights of vulnerable communities, one of four to be held at the day-long court sitting.

Sophea will testify during a session on the public health impact of anti-trafficking legislation, at which Vichuta Ly, from Cambodia's Legal Service for Children and Women, will also appear as an expert witness.

Other sessions will look at the roots of trafficking, and the resistance and survival strategies of women affected.

Courts of Women International Coordinator Corinne Kumar said the court, which was established in 1991 by the Asian Women's Human Rights Council to look at women's rights and other notions of justice for women, was designed to give a voice to victims and survivors of violence.

"Violence is increasing, but it is also intensifying, and by that I mean the forms are getting more brutal," she said. However, violence against women tended to be seen as personal and was often met with "a great silence", she added. "The Courts of Women is a public forum where personal violence is given its public face, and therefore, its political significance," Kumar said.

"Women will bring testimonies of pain and suffering; women will tell their stories; but women will also bring testimonies that are analytical, testimonies of resistance, testimonies celebrating who these women are."

Caitlin Wiesen, regional HIV/AIDS practice leader and programme coordinator for the UN Development Programme, a co-organiser of the court, said it was critical that survivors' voices were heard when responses to trafficking and HIV risk were formulated.

She singled out the risk of brothel raids driving places of sex work underground, putting workers and trafficked women beyond the reach of aid groups.

"It is often the women who are in sex work who can help identify which women have been trafficked and who are the traffickers," she said. "If you make it dangerous for women in sex work to operate and push them underground, you lose that hope of them helping to find the women who have been trafficked."

Rights groups in Cambodia have repeatedly condemned police crackdowns on brothels and street sweeps of prostitutes under new anti-trafficking laws, which they say have driven the sector underground, harmed HIV-prevention campaigns and exposed women to violence at the hands of police.

Growing risk
Wiesen added that the global economic crisis had raised the risk of trafficking and HIV for women and girls in the region, where an estimated 250,000 women and girls are trafficked every year for sex work, sexual slavery and bonded labour - or one-third of global human trafficking.

"Human trafficking often starts with the search for work from people who are poor and looking for livelihood options either in big cities or overseas," she said, citing a recent report from the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking that showed the financial crisis had led to an increase in women entering the sex trade in Cambodia, driven primarily by declining working conditions.

"The timing of this court is absolutely critical," she said. "With the economic crisis many countries are laying of workers and cutting back formal migration. The only options that remain are informal, unsafe channels of movement that put women and girls in particular at great risk of trafficking and at great risk of HIV."

Wiesen cited a recent Harvard University study of trafficked women in Nepal that found that 20 percent of survivors were HIV-positive. A new UNDP and Harvard University report set to be released at the Ninth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, which follows the court from August 9 to 13 in Bali, Indonesia, will also show that trafficked women and girls in Southeast Asia are at heightened risk of HIV infection, she added.

"The very factors that make women vulnerable to trafficking also make them vulnerable to HIV infection," she said, citing poverty, unsafe and forced migration, gender inequalities, lack of sexual and economic autonomy, violence within families and outside families, and insufficient access to information and services.

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