Gender and rights advocates have called for the overhaul of “soliciting” and prostitution laws in Cambodia in the wake of last week’s detention of several sex workers at the notorious Prey Speu rehabilitation centre.
Researcher Kasumi Nakagawa said, based on a small survey of 31 sex workers she conducted in March and compiled last month, 74 per cent had been arrested while “soliciting” on the street. About 78 per cent of sex workers were also mothers which, Nakagawa pointed out, made it difficult if the women were detained for long stretches.
“Detention of sex workers who are mothers is also a serious problem as it directly affects the welfare of their children,” she said.
According to her interviews with sex workers, they were largely taken to a police station and given a choice: Prey Speu for rehabilitation, or an NGO.
“Mostly the NGOs options are Christian-based, and women don’t want to go because they are very concerned they will be brainwashed to be ‘good women’,” she said.
Sex workers can be arrested and fined for publicly soliciting payment for sex under the anti-human trafficking law.
Nakagawa suggested legal reform to protect the rights of sex workers. Unless clients stopped buying sex services, which would require making the purchase of sex illegal, demand will continue to thrive and suppliers will continue to “be punished in an unfair way”, she said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the anti-trafficking provision was often used to “detain, extort, and abuse sex workers”, and should be “immediately repealed”, adding that “government donors supporting human-trafficking projects in Cambodia should make a concerted push to get this done”.
“[It] is also totally counter-productive since it threatens persons who the authorities should be seeking information from to investigate and stop real sex traffickers,” he said.
Phnom Penh Municipal Anti-Human Trafficking chief Keo Thea disagreed that the law was counterproductive and maintained such round-ups were legal, although the criminal code for solicitation lists only fines as punishment.
“When prostitutes solicit along the street, it creates anarchy to the public, so our police need to round up and arrest them,” he said. He added that beggars were treated in the same way.
But legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said the detention of sex workers, even for “education” at Prey Speu, was unlawful. “The punishment is only a fine; it is very small, but it is big for them.”