One year after a pilot project to decriminalize prostitution and regulate brothels
in Phnom Penh was announced - then quietly shelved - prostitutes in the city
have complained that they are facing an onslaught of abuse from police.
Their allegations have highlighted a debate between government, NGOs and the sex
industry about prostitution's legal status.
Although pimping is illegal under Cambodian law, the act of prostitution itself is
not. Rosanna Barbero from Oxfam Hong Kong's Womyn's Agenda for Change (WAC), said
the fact that the status of 'prostitution' was undefined under Cambodian law meant
many police and prostitutes were unaware of sex workers' rights.
One group told the Post they were regularly chased "like thieves", kicked,
and beaten by police. They said Prime Minister Hun Sen's November karaoke closures
had led to local authorities now targeting brothels. Those arrested, they said, had
to pay up to $10 for their release; other reports said $40 fines were common.
Seventy prostitutes protested outside the Ministry of Women's and Veteran's Affairs
(MoWVA) November 30 demanding protection from the police and appealing for brothels
to remain open. They said closing brothels would not prevent prostitution.
MoWVA minister Mu Sochua said the real issue was not legalization. "The protesters
really talked about being free from exploitation and free from harassment,"
she said. "My response was that we need to enforce the current law and monitor
abuse by the authorities."
WAC sent a report to Sochua several weeks ago that outlined a model allowing sex
workers to set up regulated centralized brothels. WAC recognized prostitution was
an unavoidable reality in a country where women's livelihood choices were limited.
"The whole debate isn't about good or bad, or pro- or anti-prostitution. It
is very complex and there are many shades of gray," said Barbero. "All
we are saying is that [women] who want to work should be protected from exploitation."
Even among NGOs, though, there are sharp disagreements on how to reduce exploitation.
AFESIP, an NGO working with women wanting to leave prostitution, rejects WAC's collective
brothel approach. It also disagrees with both prohibition and legalization and wants
the current law - which criminalizes pimping, but not the prostitutes - enforced.
Pierre Legros, regional coordinator of AFESIP, said exploitation and prostitution
could not be separated, and prostitutes should be seen as victims not workers. "Prostitution
is incompatible with the dignity and value of human life and is contrary to human
rights. It is plainly a form of slavery and cannot be considered a normal job."
Sochua said MoWVA would take the "middle ground" between the various interests.
"In the end we all agree that the exploitation of women is a crime," she
said. "The sex industry is the result, but gender inequalities are the root