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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sex workers celebrate solidarity

Sex workers celebrate solidarity

The day began with a group of women singing on stage about how to prevent HIV/AIDS.

Then came seven transgender dancers, adorned with gold jewelry, make-up, and wearing

red and brown silk clothes. With frangipani flowers in their hair, they danced to

a traditional Khmer tune and threw petals at the crowd from silver cups.

"Power to the Women's Network For Unity," sex workers shout at the anniversary celebrations.

It was the start of celebrations marking the second anniversary of the sex workers'

collective, known as the Women's Network for Unity (WNU). The energy and excitement

that characterized the opening continued throughout the day as more than 300 sex

workers and NGO staff, all clad in yellow t-shirts bearing the slogan 'Women united

to help each other', enjoyed the event designed to help some of Cambodia's most marginalized


That marginalization is the reason for the WNU's existence. In June 2000, five NGOs

helped the country's sex workers establish a collective, with the main objective

to develop solidarity among women working in the industry.

A press statement from the WNU explains the need:

"They were stigmatized and discriminated against by the very men who sought

their services; violent treatment and rape were not uncommon responses to women's

requests for condom use; and the women themselves seemed isolated from the friendship

of their peers."

Two years later the network has more than 3,000 members in 13 provinces. The anniversary

celebrations alone proved the network's success. Members organized the day themselves

and audience was packed: Princess Rattana Devi was there, as was Mu Sochua, the Minister

of Women's and Veteran's Affairs. Other members of parliament joined television crews,

NGO representatives and others to record and praise their achievements.

One NGO that helped create the network was Oxfam's Womyn's Agenda for Change. Director

Rosanna Barbero says sex workers used to feel worthless and not human; some were

even suicidal.

"Now they've shed the victim mold and are reclaiming their lives and banding

together in solidarity," she says. "They have the strength to stand up

and say: 'We are human and we are looking after our families the only way we can.'"

Mu Sochua says she is extremely proud of the network members' achievements.

"I feel courage and togetherness and wholeness," she says. "The light

in this very dark tunnel for our sisters and nieces is already here. It is in their

commitment to make the changes for themselves."

The effectiveness of the network in giving women a voice is recognized across the

board. CPP legislator Men Sam On believes the sex worker's network should be a model

for other vulnerable groups.

"After listening to the stories and struggle of our sisters and nieces to live

and be recognized as human beings with rights and value I feel excited and full of

praise," she says. "You [sex workers] should enjoy the same rights as everyone

else and no one should violate your rights.

"As a member of parliament I fully support the Women's Network for Unity and

would like to appeal to other women to participate in this activity towards positive

change for living standards and the social environment and to strengthen [women's]

self-determination and improve problem solving."

There is also recognition among NGOs and the government that sex workers are key

to the prevention of HIV/AIDS and that society can no longer afford to ignore their

existence. Dr Tia Phalla, the general secretary of the National Aids Authority, credits

sex workers with significantly reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"Previously no one paid attention to sex workers and they were excluded from

society," he says. "Yet outside the family 100-200,000 men go every day

and have sex.

"Now with the participation of sex workers there is 90 percent condom use. Previously

it was 70 percent, so now 100,000 people have already been saved [from HIV]. Participation

by sex workers is very important. If society discriminates against them many people

will die."

Twenty-four year old Srey Mao, speaking on behalf of the network, says that conditions

are still very difficult: sex workers are raped and mistreated by authorities, and

those who work in parks are beaten and raped by youths.

"We are not different," she says. "We are the same as other women

who have the intention to build a bright future but this intention is still a dream

that we cannot make come true."

Women tell of poverty, abuse and rejection

Many of the sex workers were willing to share their stories. The Post talked to

three about their lives and how the network has helped them.

Network member Manh Chhreup has been a sex worker since she was 13 years old.

Now 30, Chhreup has known she is HIV positive for six years.

Sex workers act out a brief drama on aspects of their work.

"I became a sex worker because my parents were very poor and my siblings did

not have money to go to school. My neighbor told me that if I came to work in Phnom

Penh I would become rich and have gold. But she sold me in Sihanoukville and I was

forced to have sex with men without using condoms.

"If I refused to have sex with clients [the brothel owner] would beat me. Then

I moved to work in Koh Kong province in a brothel and I jumped into the sea to try

to escape. I missed my parents very much and wanted to return to my home town. I

swam away, but the police saw me and saved me from the sea. They helped me to come

back to Phnom Penh.

"When I came back I met my mother and she was sick with lung disease so I decided

to be a sex worker again to make some money. The police still arrest me and beat

me and the brothel owner also hits me with a broomstick. I say: 'You arrest me and

take my money - if you are good, why don't you arrest the youths and the gangs in

the street. Why do you arrest us and take our money?'

"The network has explained a lot to me. We have a meeting each month and medical

check ups. When I went in I found out I was HIV positive. I didn't understand what

HIV was. I wanted to tear up the test slip and let myself die.

"Then the network explained things to me and gave me advice and encouragement.

A lot of my neighbors still discriminate against me. They will not eat with me and

they say: 'I am afraid you will transmit the disease to me so I won't rent you a

house'. People say: 'Be careful, she will give the disease to your children.'

"The network has made my life better and strengthened my self-esteem and understanding.

Now I use condoms all the time and [the WNU] teaches us how to clean ourselves and

love ourselves. I didn't understand this before.

"We protest against police [brutality] and strengthen our self-esteem as women.

We are encouraged to speak up against the boss so he doesn't look down on us. The

police always look down on us because they say that women transmit the virus to the


"I don't think about the future. I just want to learn sewing and knitting and

also I want the HIV pill to prolong my life. I ask all the nurses not to discriminate

against HIV victims."

Linda, 31, was an Angkor beer girl in Phnom Penh for ten years.


"When I got married my husband bullied me especially mentally, so I got divorced

and my husband married again. Then I started to work as a beer girl in hotels and


"The network helps my self-esteem, to know my rights to protest, and for protection

measures against HIV. I have changed a lot. Before I didn't think about condom use

and other things, but now I understand. If the client does not want to use a condom

I cannot stay with them.

"We come together to help each other on issues such as how to prevent HIV. For

example these days if people look down on us and say things, I don't listen to them.

We have to give value to ourselves; no one else can give it to us.

"Now I am no longer a beer girl. I sell grilled beef and food instead. I think

my life will get better and better because no one will put pressure on me. I control

myself now."

Prom Hen, 39, is originally from Prey Veng. She has been a sex worker in Phnom Penh

since 1980.

"My parents died in the Khmer Rouge [regime] so I was an orphan and had to support

my four siblings. When I came from my hometown I lived under some-one's house, but

they poured dirty water on us so I decided to become a sex worker to buy food for

my siblings.

"There was discrimination against me from my neighbors but I never replied.

I just hid inside and cried. When I became angry I wanted to jump in the river and

kill myself, but I always thought of my brothers and sisters and this stopped me.

"The discrimination has lessened now that I am a member of the network, because

I feel when they curse me I have a right to protest. The villagers looked down on

us, but now some people respect us and we have relationships like normal people.

Only drunken men still curse us.

"My life is very difficult. Sometimes the men took me away and didn't wear a

condom and then I got pregnant. I have three children, and now I always use condoms.

"This year I haven't made much money and the future of my family is a problem.

My siblings are without work. Last year before the karaoke closed I worked in a bar

and made a lot of money. I have done everything: sex dancing, massage, karaoke bars

and brothels.

"I feel very happy [that I am in the network]. In my life I have only ever had

people look down on me, but now I have met many high-ranking people and been shown

on television, I feel I have a lot of freedom."



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