THE 2008 Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation violates international guidelines, encourages gender discrimination and increases the danger of sex work, according to a study released last week by the Cambodian Alliance for Combating HIV/AIDS (CACHA) along with 11 local, international and governmental organisations.
UN guidelines call for officials to ensure that traffickers, and not sex workers, are at "the focus of anti-trafficking strategies", the report states.
But by regarding all sex workers as victims, the 2008 anti-trafficking law conflates women who have been trafficked with women who consent to sex work, thereby diverting attention away from traffickers, according to the report.
To produce the report, titled "Policies Environment Regarding Universal Access and the Right to Work of Entertainment Workers in Cambodia", researchers collected data from 1,116 female sex workers.
Less than 1 percent of those polled said they were sold into prostitution, and more than 90 percent said sex work was their best available job option.
After the anti-trafficking law was passed in January 2008, police cracked down on brothels, prompting many sex workers to move to karaoke bars, massage parlours and beer gardens.
Tia Phalla, deputy director of the National Aids Authority, which helped produce the report, said Wednesday that he was worried that HIV/AIDS awareness had declined as a result of the shift away from brothels.
"We are having difficulties educating them," he said. "When we go into a restaurant or beer garden and tell them why we have come, they say they are not sex workers."
The report also highlights a recent decline in brothel-based education.
Out of fear of police raids, "brothel owners have become less willing to allow HIV services in their establishments", the report states.
"Closure of brothels leads more entertainment workers to work in more dangerous conditions."
The report outlines a number of ways to improve the 2008 law. These include providing further clarification on the definition of "soliciting" so that people are not arrested for carrying condoms.
Above all, the report recommends that judges and prosecutors recognise the "right to enter freely into commercial relationships connected to [sex] work".
"Some articles in the law should be amended so that sex workers have the right to do their business and can receive healthcare services," Ly Cheng Huy, chairman of the CACHA steering community, said.
Engaging sex workers in a meaningful way - something the report argues did not happen before the 2008 law was adopted - would yield a more effective approach to ending trafficking, the report states.
"[An] entertainment worker led and controlled programme can play a much more effective role in combating trafficking ... than law enforcement approaches," the report says, citing as an example a regulatory body in Kolkata, India, set up by sex workers that saw significant declines in the number of underage sex workers.
This approach would "help to promote the dignity, welfare and health of those human beings who are also entertainment workers", the report says.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING KHUON LEAKHANA