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Sex industry dangers studied

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Unidentified sex workers work the area around the capital’s Wat Phnom. Photograph: Sovann Philong

Abortions, workplace drinking and violence are common issues for female entertainment workers – many of whom are expected to have sex with customers – in Cambodia’s major cities, a Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport report launched yesterday says.

According to the study, designed by NGO FHI 360 and UNICEF Cambodia to examine HIV risks among such workers, most women profiled had not consented to their first sexual encounter and had entered the industry because they were desperate for money.

“For the majority of [female entertainment workers], sexual debut was primarily nonconsensual, occurring in the context of rape or coercion, before the age of 18,” the report says.

Abortions are common, while the use of contraception other than condoms is not, it adds.

The study, which profiled 77 women, men and those identifying as transgender working in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Poipet and Sihanoukville, found that, despite commercial sex being a driver of a “concentrated HIV epidemic”, accurate knowledge of HIV prevention among those studied ranged from moderate to high.

The majority of the 41 women profiled, who were aged 18 to 29, worked in beer gardens, karaoke venues, massage parlours or brothels, while most of the 23 men and 13 transgender workers – many of whom reported having been discriminated against – were freelancers.

The report, although not meant to be representative of the entire 35,000-plus industry, recommended the government focus on girls completing basic education – none of the women profiled finished high school, where sex-education is taught.

It also urged the government to support research into young people’s involvement in sex work and better implement the human trafficking law.

Muth Sokunny, adviser for HIV prevention at FHI 360, said preventing young people from entering sex work and protecting those already in the industry should be priorities.

“For example, with drinking, [workers] have the right to say no, and entertainment venues should build good relationships with clients to try to protect [workers],” she said. “We have to address the ones at most high risk of HIV – the ones who are engaged in sex with clients.”

Mak Vann, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Education, welcomed the report.

“We must act on these recommendations, otherwise, the research will have been meaningless,” he said, calling the problems “very big concerns”.

Tia Phalla, deputy director of National AIDS Authority, said about 500 youths were infected with HIV each year.

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