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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sex workers face more risks in global downturn

Sex workers face more risks in global downturn

Sex workers face more risks in global downturn

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Fewer clients with less money are putting in harm’s way many women forced into the sex industry by job cuts, advocates say

Photo by: SOVANN PHILONG

A customer receives a massage at a cut-rate parlour where sex is one of the services offered.

HOY Channy has been a sex worker since 1997, and right now, she says, business is as bad as she has ever seen it. Since the global economic crisis struck Cambodia, her monthly income has dropped  by US$100, and less money means less food for the 11 family members she supports.

"Even though society does not value me, I earn money by my own strength and spirit. If I don't do it, I don't have anything for my children and family to eat," the 32-year-old said.

According to the United Nations, nearly 60,000 people have lost their jobs in the garment sector. While many of those have found new jobs, many thousands more women have few work options outside of subsistence farming.

As a result, more women are turning to sex work to support themselves and their families, flooding a shrinking market of increasingly poorer clientele, said Am Sam Ath, a technical superviser from the rights group Licadho.

"The global economic crisis has closed many factories, which results in job losses for many people. They have to look for other jobs, and so the number of prostitutes increases, even though the customers are getting scarcer and scarcer," he said.

This situation has led to a decrease in sex-worker income, and that has made them more vulnerable to exploitation, said Ly Pisey, a technical assistant at the Womyn's Agenda for Change.

"When you're starving, you have to reconsider what you'll do. The powerless mostly lose."

Sou Sotheavy, director of the Men's and Women's Network for Development, said, "The economic crisis is a reason for the decrease in income for sex workers.... My women are in miserable conditions now."

When you're starving, you have to reconsider what you’ll do. The powerless mostly lose.

Though having 11 dependents like Hoy Channy is on the high end, it is not unusual for sex workers to give their earnings to their families.
Sara Bradford, a technical adviser for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers in Cambodia, said that sex workers here on average have 3.1 dependents, according to UNAIDS.

Bradford said that with less income, sex workers are more likely to put themselves at risk to attract customers.

"They might be willing to do things they wouldn't do before - like unprotected sex - to increase the amount of money they're making," she said, adding that women new to sex work, such as laid-off garment workers, are also more likely to be abused.

"Someone who is new to sex work might not know what they're doing and what could put them in danger," she said.

Controversial human trafficking legislation that was passed in February 2008 criminalised sex work and led to months of brothel busts.

As a result, most sex workers moved from brothels to less centralised locations, away from outreach programs.

"After they leave the closed brothels, they will become secret prostitutes on streets, at gas stations, night clubs and karaoke parlours," Am Sam Ath said.

Ly Pisey said that sex workers who work independently of brothels are more likely to be affected by the economic downturn, because they are less protected and often more desperate for money.

"Some clients think ‘I have money. I can do anything'," and that can be dangerous for a sex worker, Ly Pisey said.

"When you do not have power to negotiate, you are vulnerable," Ly Pisey added.

Though Am Sam Ath does not support prostitution, he says the anti-trafficking law puts sex workers at a greater financial risk, a problem exacerbated by the current economic crisis.

"The government should reconsider closing brothels, because closing them down can be an extra cause of poverty," he said.

Ing Kantha Phavi, the minister of women's affairs, said her goal was to raise women out of sex work and into reputable jobs, not to improve the incomes of prostitutes.

"The policy of our ministry is to raise the face, value and reputation of Cambodian women. If we support that job [sex work], it means that we are not doing our job. That their income decreases because of the global financial crisis is their own problem," she said.

Sex workers have other options, she said, and the government is doing what it can to help train women in these other sectors.

"Our goal is to get them to have legal jobs, especially in the agricultural sector. To do this, the Ministry of Commerce has budgeted to train them with skills so that they can look for a legal job," she said.

But Hoy Channy says she is not looking for another job because she says there are no other options for her. She just wants to be able to safely feed her family.

"I have been a sex worker for a long time. I depend on this job. I don't have anything else," she said.

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