After a report condemns the lack of dialogue between officials and sex worker groups, sex workers tell the Post they want to be directly involved in efforts to combat trafficking.
AREPORT released earlier this month that surveyed more than 1,000 female sex workers called for more consultation between government and NGO representatives and those who actually work in the sex industry.
The report, released by the Cambodian Alliance for Combating HIV/AIDS (CACHA) along with 11 local, international and governmental organisations, said such consultation would lead to more effective policies than the existing 2008 Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, which it roundly criticised.
In recent interviews, sex workers and those who advocate on their behalf in the capital told the Post they would appreciate the chance to work with law enforcement officers and NGOs, but they said their efforts to engage both groups in the past had not been well received.
"We've approached a number of NGOs running anti-trafficking and rehabilitation programmes ... about incorporating sex workers into the conversation, as well as law enforcement, but don't meet with much interest," said Ly Pisey, part of the support staff at the Women's Network for Unity (WNU).
"One sex worker was invited to the talks at the National Assembly about the [2008 law], but she wasn't allowed to speak. NGO staff have had a lot of opportunities to recommend whatever they like, but there's no space for grassroots people."
Sara Bradford, a technical adviser for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, said direct engagement of sex workers should be promoted.
"Sex workers have expressed a huge willingness in assisting law enforcement with locating trafficked persons. It's unfortunate that the sex workers are being ignored because they have access to the people and places law enforcement does not," she said.
When asked about training programmes, sex workers' main complaint was that many of them were mandatory.
"If a sex worker wants to participate in a rehab or vocational programme, that's good," said Keo Tha, a coordinator at WNU and a sex worker. "But if they don't volunteer, it violates their rights.... They lock us up like we're thieves. But sex workers are not criminals."
According to the CACHA report, the 2008 law does not make prostitution illegal, although there are few sex workers who can meet the
requirements for legal sex work.
Keo Tha said part of respecting women's rights involves respecting their choices, even when they choose to pursue sex work.
"Sex work is good work. You're very free, you can choose which clients you want to accept," Keo Tha said. "As long as you have the skills to negotiate with the client, to use a condom. We can make money very quickly ... and then we can buy rice right away."
The women interviewed described what they would like NGO-sponsored programmes to emphasise.
"I'd like to see them teach HIV education. And also how to negotiate with clients and brothel owners, and how to use condoms, which the clients don't want to use. If sex workers are empowered to negotiate with clients, HIV won't spread," said Uk Mony, a sex worker in Tuol Kork district.
Sex workers cited what they described as conflicting priorities on the part of NGOs, the UN, the government and donor groups.
For instance, the act of providing information to sex workers aimed at training them to negotiate safe, commercial sex or avoid violence is illegal under Article 25 of the 2008 law, meaning the law technically criminalises some HIV-prevention activities promoted by NGOs and even the government.
Several women also said some NGOs had demonstrated outright insensitivity in their interactions with sex workers.
During recent arrests, sex workers detained at a local anti-trafficking NGO said they could not access their HIV medicine while advocates negotiated on their behalf.
"Those who are HIV-positive need to have quick access to antiretroviral medication. Sometimes in arrest situations they go for days without it while people negotiate for their release. Why don't they have it easily available?" said Pich Sokchea, a sex worker and advocacy officer at WNU.
Ten Borany, deputy director of the Ministry of Interior's anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection department, said the government has repeatedly tried to involve sex workers but has not received an enthusiastic response.
"Our group organised public forums in five provinces to encourage sex workers to participate," he said. "But we haven't had any sex workers come to cooperate with us yet."