In a dilapidated building nestled in the heart of Phnom Penh, two slumbering girls lay curled on a mattress in a room shaped like a matchbox. As the door to their room inside a safe house swung open, they remained balled up on their bed, lightly exhaling in unison.
The pair are among eight between the ages of eight and 20 who reside at the Cambodian Women’s Development Agency’s (CDWA) Safe Shelter, created to protect up to 20 women and girls at
a time from trafficking, rape and gender-based violence.
“If they weren’t here, they would probably be at high risk of more violence or sleeping on the streets. Women and girls needs safe havens like this in Cambodia,” said Fiona Mann, 26, an advocacy and policy adviser for CWDA.
Pich* was six years old when her father died of hepatitis, leaving her mother with five young children to feed and no money for groceries.
Pich’s mother sold her as collateral to a loan shark, who then, in turn, forced her to work in a local market until she was 12.
Now 19, she has just hit her seventh year living in the safe house and hopes to start university next year. When she’s not lending an extra hand at the shelter, volunteering for a local youth-oriented NGO is one way she loves to spend her days.
Abused and trafficked women have limited options in a country where the officials charged with upholding the laws can sometimes be the perpetrators of violence, and sex workers are particularly vulnerable to acts of violence from state authorities in government-run safe houses.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report from 2010 noted: “Women and girls involved in sex work face beatings, rape, sexual harassment, extortion, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labour, and other cruel and degrading treatment at the hands of police, public park security guards, governmental officials, and those working in the centers and offices run by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSAVY).”
Since the report’s release, the government has shuttered three of its rehabilitation centres, but according to a second report released this month by HRW, titled They Treat Us Like Animals, the Kingdom’s drug detention centres are still locking up individuals deemed “undesirable” by the government, including sex workers, with a complete lack of due process.
Evidence of abused Cambodian women with no faith in the authorities can be found throughout the capital’s safe-houses.
But it’s not just women. Sophea*, a 26-year-old gay man, is no stranger to harassment.
Many of his friends, both men and women, have spent unwarranted time in pre-trial detention without legal representation on charges of public incitement.
“We call each other if we get in trouble,” Sophea said, adding that he had routinely been picked up and harassed simply for congregating with friends in the Wat Phnom area.
Social discrimination against the LGBQT population in Cambodia is rampant, according to Sophea, a theme that often begins at home.
“Parents and relatives often ask gays and transgender people to leave home. Sometimes, we can’t go to school. Many of us rent a large room and live together to support one another,” Sophea said, noting that he had lived this way in Poipet and Phnom Penh.
If sex workers or gay people get hustled out of the wat, or if someone is held for too long in designated buildings paid for by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs – which ignored repeated requests to comment for this article – they self-organise by calling their friends.
“We can bring food and water for them if they are suspected sex workers and being held” for various stretches of time, Sophea said.
The community is also uniquely vulnerable to sexual crimes.
A UN-backed study released this September found one in five Cambodian men have committed rape, but more than 44 per cent of them have never faced any legal consequences.
The same study revealed that in Cambodia gang rape has the second-highest prevalence in the region.
Bauk, a Khmer word meaning “plus” in the context of the Kingdom’s sex industry, often involves a man purchasing a sex worker who is then passed among a group of friends, according to male and female sex workers interviewed for this article.
Part of the problem in cracking down on such crimes is that trafficking and sex work are rarely classified separately in Cambodia – making it difficult for sex workers to advocate for their rights.
Cheryl Overs, a researcher and human rights activist from Melbourne who specialises in HIV prevention and care programs for male, female and transgender sex workers in developing countries, has linked that joint categorisation to a lack of protection for workers.
“The important story in Cambodia is the conflation of sexual exploitation and sex work that has led to the elimination of the term and the concept ‘sex worker’ and ensured that sex workers have no voice at all in Cambodia,” Overs wrote in an email in November.
By pairing sexual exploitation and sex work, essentially invalidating sex work as a viable means of earning money, many argue that everyone becomes a “victim,” she explained.
That attitude can often lead to attacking the surface symptoms rather than the root problems, she said. So while a press-friendly “brothel bust” may save one or two people living in hopeless conditions, the endemic reasons women and children end up in those situations in the first place are largely ignored.
The Kingdom’s implementation of the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation (LHTSE) in 2008 renders all forms of prostitution illegal.
A downside of the law was that it had driven the sex industry underground, making sex workers more vulnerable to abuse, Overs said.
Programs launched in the wake of the law’s passage have also come under attack for not delivering what was intended.
Enter the unions
With their work often conflated with trafficking, and sexual crimes against women increasingly widespread, some sex workers have sought protection by unionising.
CWDA – which hosts the shelter that is home to Pich and seven others – doubles as the parent organisation of the Cambodian Prostitutes Union (CPU).
The CPU was formed to protect the occupational health and safety of entertainment workers, including “women who sell sex directly and indirect sex workers who work in massage parlours, beer gardens and karaoke bars,” according to CWDA’s last annual report.
Women with little to no cash can still become members of the CPU, because the union charges no membership fee, says Keo Sichan, the program coordinator of the group’s Women’s Health and HIV/AIDS Program.
While they aren’t eligible to live in the safe house, which is reserved for those in danger of trafficking or violence, entertainment workers – including those living with HIV/AIDS in Daun Penh, Russey Keo and Tuol Kork districts – are provided education about safe working practices and the law, according to Sichan.
And the CPU is not alone.
In 2000, five NGOs helped the Kingdom’s sex workers establish a collective of women working in the sex industry, known as the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU).
Today, membership includes more than 6,000 people across seven provinces, according to Malis*, a member and former president. This figure, however, has not been independently verified.
While local NGOs were key to the establishment of the union, today, it is self-governed because of members’ intimate knowledge of the working conditions sex workers confront day to day.
“We are the ones experiencing domestic violence and rape, so we want to run the organisation ourselves,” she said.
Malis, who served as president for three years, joined the collective in 2001 after an NGO worker recruited her from a massage parlour in Svay Pak commune, an area notorious for brothels. Today, she earns about $15 a day plying for her own customers on the street.
“We must help one another,” she said. “Teaching sex workers about where they can go if they are hurt is one way we try and do that.”
Educating WNU members about sexual health and legal rights is another avenue the collective uses to alleviate the dangers sex workers face.
Each sub-section of the union has an elected representative that serves for three years – transgender sex workers and gay and lesbian sex workers are all represented by their own elected leader who represents their interests during biannual meetings.
The WNU charges a nominal membership fee, used to offset healthcare costs if workers are hurt on the job. If a member is in need of a blood test for HIV/AIDS, needs medical attention or an abortion, the union helps facilitate access to these services at the Japanese and Khmer-Soviet Friendship hospitals, Malis said.
“If we’re concerned a member has HIV/AIDS, we send them to RHAC, and if they want an abortion, we send them to Marie Stopes,” she said, adding that an abortion costs around $30 at Marie Stopes Cambodia [MSI] but members of the organisation only have to pay $7-$10.
(Stefanie Wallach, country director for MSI Cambodia, said that while she was unaware of any special relationship between the organisation and the WNU, the price of medical care was at the discretion of each centre director based on an individual’s needs, and it was not policy to give discounts to sex workers or their unions.)
Mara* represents the WNU’s transgender sex workers, of which she says there are more than 100 members in eight provinces, and began working in the sex industry in 1993 to help her mother provide for her two young nieces – her family has no idea that the money used to buy their food is earned on the streets.
Dressing like a woman comes at a cost when Mara’s customers discover she has male genitalia.
Her face betrayed emotion as she explained how angry and drunk customers often beat her after discovering what she looks like naked. Still, despite the dangers, living without that income was an even more frightening prospect.
“Before I was a sex worker, I used to sell oranges and their juice for about 500 riel near Independence Monument. But things are different now. Everything costs so much.”
*The names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities.