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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Legislation blurs the lines between trafficking and voluntary sex work

Legislation blurs the lines between trafficking and voluntary sex work

Preah Sihanouk

Pin Lin moved to Sihanoukville in 2006, but it wasn’t to experience the seaside charms of Cambodia’s flourishing tourist destination.

From a destitute family in Kampong Thom racked by domestic violence, she left her family home to earn money that she could send back to her mother. She is no longer in contact with her father.

From there, her story is one that has become very familiar in the popular resort town. An early job in a nightclub; makeup and sexy clothing; some offers from leering guests to make extra money for her family and then regular sex work.

Pin Lin now sleeps with an average of two men per night, which earns her enough money to send US$20 to her family every month while still supporting herself.

“I have no choice because my family is so poor,” she said.

Though she feels her hand is forced by the economic hardship that her family endures, Pin Lin is not a victim of human trafficking and it is this important distinction that human rights groups have complained has become dangerously blurred by recent government action on trafficking.

Sei Nara, coordinator of the Khmer Women’s Campaign for Development, would prefer that girls like Pin Lin didn’t engage in sex work, and her organisation runs vocational training programmes to try to get girls out of the sex industry. But the main work of her organisation is to distribute condoms and educate sex workers about the dangers of contracting HIV.

Since a government crackdown on conspicuous brothels and “girlie bars” in 2005 was launched by the provincial government, following a directive of the national government, her organisation have seen the majority of sex work go underground. This makes it almost impossible for them to identify girls at risk of contracting HIV and to distribute condoms.

“My organisation are focused on finding sex workers, but they are more hidden [now] than before, because [now] the sex workers work in the bars ,clubs and restaurants, but when the guests sequester them for sex they will agree in order to find extra money to support their family,” she said.
In 2008 the government took further action, implementing the Anti-human Trafficking Law, which critics have said confused victims of sexual trafficking with voluntary sex workers.

A report released by the Cambodian Alliance for Combating HIV/AIDS in July 2008 found that 90 percent of sex workers that were interview had chosen the work as the best option available to them, invariably because of economic hardship.

Government assaults on overt prostitution, which have continued in waves up until the present, merely drove sex workers into massage parlours, bars and beauty salons, where it was difficult for those providing support networks to reach them, according to the report.

Sei Nara’s staff were able to find Pin Lin and are helping her acquire new skills so that she can one day leave the sex industry and settle into a more culturally accepted life with her loving husband.

They may have a harder time finding people in Pin Lin’s situation in the future.

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