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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sex workers rally against new anti-trafficking law

Sex workers rally against new anti-trafficking law

Cat Barton

Chanting "save us from saviours," sex workers protest gross police mistreatment during the latest crackdown on commercial sex workers and human trafficking.

For six months they have endured worsening physical and sexual abuse at the hands of police over-zealously enforcing a new anti-trafficking law, but now Cambodian sex workers are fighting back.

More than 500 commercial sex workers rallied together on June 4 to protest the massive escalation of violent police raids on brothels and the criminalization of sex work due to new US-backed "model" anti-trafficking legislation, passed in February this year.

The "day of action," held at the Women's Network for Unity (WNU) in Phnom Penh, called for the repeal of the new anti-trafficking law, which critics say conflates prostitution with trafficking and is so over-broad that even carrying condoms can now get you arrested.

 

Chanting "save us from saviors" and waving placards saying "condoms protect, police threaten," hundreds of red-shirted sex workers demanded their human rights be respected and asserted they did not need to be "saved" from their jobs in brothels, least of all by lecherous, avaricious police officers.

“During brothel raids the police beat sex workers with sticks, stones, or weapons, and take all their money and jewelry," said Pheng Phally, a sex worker and team leader of the WNU.

"If any sex workers are pretty, the police gang rape them before sending them to the rehabilitation center where there is not enough food and very poor hygiene."

Video-taped evidence of the abuse of sex workers by Cambodian law-enforcement officials was presented at the event, which comes just one day before Minister of Interior Sar Kheng is due to make an announcement on the US State Department's annual assessment of the Kingdom’s anti-trafficking efforts.

WNU's Phally explained that after the new anti-trafficking legislation passed the police ramped-up brothel raids, began targeting street-based sex workers and closing down karaoke bars.

Not only does the new climate of fear and repression make it nearly impossible for the tens of thousands of women employed in the Kingdom's sex industry to earn a living, but they are being "beaten and treated like animals" during the raids, she said.

“We have gathered today to ask the government to repeal the law and stop the violent raids on us, we have rights too and we need to be allowed to earn money for ourselves and our families – sex work is work," Phally said.

The head of Cambodia's anti-trafficking police, Bith Kim Hong, on May 13 denied reports from groups like the WNU that large numbers of prostitutes were being rounded up under the new law’s soliciting clause, only to emerge from jail stripped of their money and possessions, or showing signs of physical and sexual abuse.

“It is not true police are using this law to arrest and extort money from the suspects. We never arrest prostitutes but rather we save them from brothels,” he told the Post at the time.

Cambodia’s “Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” is based on US-style model anti-trafficking legislation that seeks to eliminate human trafficking by criminalizing the sex industry as a whole.

Activists claim it was only passed in a misguided attempt to meet anti-trafficking standards imposed by the US State Department, and point to the fact other US agencies –- such as USAID -– oppose the law.

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