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A sex worker waits for customers near Wat Phnom earlier this week.
A sex worker waits for customers near Wat Phnom earlier this week. Athena Zelandonii

Phnom Penh sex workers stuck between Prey Speu and the street

Eight years after Cambodia passed a strict – and contentious – anti-trafficking law, street sex workers continue to suffer detainment and alleged abuse at the hands of clients and police. Things need to change, say researchers, human rights defenders and the women themselves.

Three months ago, Leakhena*, a sex worker, was walking alone on a dark street near Wat Phnom when she was stopped and pushed into a Daun Penh district police van. It was late. She wasn’t “looking for customers”, she says. And she certainly wasn’t talking to anyone.

There were five other women inside the van, which was driven directly to the police station. Later, the group was taken to Prey Speu – the notorious detention centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh designated for “re-educating” the homeless, the mentally ill and those who sell sex.

“In [Prey Speu], they treated us as if we were prisoners who had committed a serious crime,” Leakhena says. “We lived in a room with 50 people. At meal times, the guards unlocked the door, but they walked between us with batons. We couldn’t take a bath.”

She stayed only one week. Then, like convicts, she and six other detainees broke a window and climbed out, escaping before dawn.

Leakhena returned to the street almost immediately – she couldn’t afford not to. Now 30 years old, she turned to sex work four years ago after she divorced her husband. She has two young sons and needs to support them.

“We get $5 per customer,” she says. “If I worked as a cleaner in a restaurant, I could not make $5in a day.”

But she abandons her work if she gets a glimpse of the cops. “Every time I see the police – plainclothes or in uniform – I walk back home,” she says. “I will never let the police catch me again.”

No stranger to the law

Leakhena’s arrest is common enough. Wat Phnom, well-known as a place men go to pay for sex, is a frequent – and sometimes the only – stop on police “roundups” that often end in detention.

In the latest street sweep earlier this month, 15 sex workers were picked up in the area.

Of the five female sex workers interviewed this week by Post Weekend, all had been detained and none was informed of their accused crime.

Both the director of the city’s Department of Social Affairs, which runs Prey Speu, and the centre’s chief declined to comment on the current number of sex workers or others currently detained there.

Public solicitation of sex is illegal in Cambodia, as is profiting from prostitution, recruiting someone into the trade, acting as an intermediary or interfering with “prevention” (all defined as “procurement”). The act of buying sex is not.

In Cambodia, it is most often sex workers – not their clients – who have suffered at the hands of the authorities.

A sex worker speaks to two potential clients near Wat Phnom.
A sex worker speaks to two potential clients near Wat Phnom. Athena Zelandonii

Under the Khmer Rouge, prostitution was punishable by death. And during the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea, sex workers were arrested and sent to a former Khmer Rouge prison on Kandal province’s Koh Kor island – which remained, like Prey Speu, a detention centre for “undesirables” until 2008.

The current solicitation law is just one part of the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, backed by UNICEF, and enacted in 2008. It was intended to stem Cambodia’s trafficking problem. The law led to a crackdown on once-booming brothels and red-light districts, but it also drew a swift backlash.

Its enforcement varied wildly, and could conflate trafficking with sex work, critics said at the time. Raids and arrests drove sex work underground, threatening women’s health and safety. Allegations of police abuse skyrocketed.

The criticism has continued.

“The 2008 anti-trafficking law has been a human rights disaster for sex workers who walk the streets,” says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “The police have taken a badly written law with a broad definition of ‘soliciting’ and turned it to their advantage.”

The first step, he argues, is to repeal the solicitation provision. But by the books, solicitation is illegal both by the human-trafficking law and the revised Criminal Code, which was passed one year later. The punishments differ: 3,000 to 10,000 riel (about $0.75-$2.50) and one to six days imprisonment in the former; or 5,000 to 50,000 riel (about $1.25-$12.50) under the Criminal Code.

In Cambodia, laws occasionally overlap, and have rarely been repealed following the introduction of the Criminal Code, according to Phnom Penh-based legal analyst and human rights consultant Billy Tai.

“[In cases of overlap], there’s no certainty within the law and no clear language, so we really just don’t know,” he says.

“It leaves room for doubt.”

That’s not to mention pre-existing penal codes, from which provisions are still used. One rarely invoked law, which forbids adultery, has been brought up by politicians – but not by the courts – in the ongoing prostitution case involving acting CNRP president Kem Sokha, a case that is widely seen as politically motivated.

Arbitrary enforcement

On the street, the law seems arbitrary. There are bribes, not fines, and some women walk a thin line between existence and “solicitation”.

“[Sex workers] don’t even know what the laws governing their actions are, so the police can tell them whatever they want,” says Tai. “I don’t even know if the government officials are up to date on their law, to be honest.”

In practice, police often solicit money from sex workers. Among those interviewed by Post Weekend, the asking price had varied from $20 to $200 – not a few thousand riel. (Some of the women had paid.)

Working the streets: increased dangers from customers and police.
Working the streets: increased dangers from customers and police. Athena Zelandonii

And then there is a decision to make: “If there’s no money to give to the police, they will send us to the centre,” says Somaly*, a 36-year-old sex worker.

While bars, massage parlours or barbershops often operate as fronts for the sex industry – and usually cater to foreigners in addition to Cambodians – they don’t receive the same treatment from the police. One barbershop brothel shuttered by anti-trafficking police this month had operated without a hitch for nearly a decade. Local police had previously asked neighbours not to report the business, the Cambodia Daily reported at the time.

Street workers, then, become the target.

There are few figures on the number of sex workers in Phnom Penh, much less a record of how many work on the street. A Ministry of Health estimate cited in 2010 by Human Rights Watch put the city’s total at about 6,000 sex workers; a more informal 2013 estimate reckoned the number of street sex workers was fewer than 1,000.

For an informal sense of scale, Keo Tha, a program officer at Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), one of Phnom Penh’s primary sex-worker unions, says her organisation has counted between 500 and 600 women working on the street while distributing condoms. Since 2015, WNU has been involved in the cases of 112 women detained at Prey Speu.

But Kasumi Nakagawa, a gender-studies researcher who has spent nearly 20 years in Phnom Penh, conducted a small-scale survey on street sex workers in March, interviewing 31 women. She was struck by their silence – in arrest and in detainment.

“Police may not explain anything, they just bring them into the minivan,” Nakagawa says. “Women are silenced due to the authority the police have . . . they understand it’s just not worth asking [about] matters under detention.”

It’s a phenomenon reflected by the women interviewed this week.

“The police put a gun to my stomach and refused to give us food while we were at the Daun Penh police station,” says 34-year-old Channa.

“The police wore casual clothes when they arrested us,” says Somaly. “They put 14 women on the same bus.”

Often, she adds, they rely on motodops in the area to keep watch.

Transgender women may be targeted based simply on their appearance; one interviewed by the Post at Prey Speu in June said she had never worked as a sex worker but was arrested while simply walking near Wat Phnom. And there are other risks: 10 of the 31 women Nakagawa interviewed had experienced a gang rape.

Billy Tai says for sex workers, going to the police about rape can result in re-traumatisation, even physically.

“It’s not what’s in the law, or isn’t in the law,” he says. “It’s just very clear that nothing will happen.”

Nearly three-quarters of the women Nakagawa interviewed had been arrested, often arbitrarily. “I met with one woman who was arrested in front of her house, along the railroad, who was eating breakfast,” she says of the interviewee who suddenly found herself in Prey Speu.

Could the ‘Swedish model’ work?

Erin Handley

In a recent report based on a survey of Cambodian sex workers, researcher Kasumi Nakagawa floats the idea of making the purchase of sex – rather than the selling of it – illegal.

“Unless clients stop buying sex workers’ services . . . demands will never be ceased and suppliers for those needs must be punished in an unfair way,” she writes.

It’s an idea similar to the so-called “Swedish” or “Nordic” model, which attempts to penalise the customer in a bid to cut the demand for commercial sex without punishing women who might be victims of trafficking.

But it’s a contentious concept. For Keo Tha, of WNU, fining customers would be detrimental to those who willingly enter sex work, and those who desperately need the money.

“The men will not dare to look for those women because they are afraid of the punishment,” she says. “Our women could be starved; they could not earn a living and they would have nothing to do.”

Legal analyst Billy Tai is sympathetic to the idea, saying if the government wanted to ban the sex trade, it should dampen demand, not punish prostitutes.

“If you are going to punish somebody, it should be on the demand side,” he says. “They are more culpable.”

He adds that the law in its current state is hypocritical – though its aim is to reduce human trafficking, it expressly punishes the victims of trafficking as well those who willingly work in the sex trade.

Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, agrees that the anti-trafficking law is used to abuse sex workers, but also warns against the Swedish model.

“[The model] has pushed the sex trade further into the shadows, made it more dangerous for both sex workers and their customers alike,” he says. “Criminalising sex between consenting adults is a clear rights violation and an invasion of privacy, and should not be adopted by Cambodia.”

Police tend to focus on sex workers on the street, not those in bars.
Police tend to focus on sex workers on the street, not those in bars. Athena Zelandonii

Indefinite detainment

The problems inside Prey Speu have been well-documented.

Keo Tha, of WNU, says the average stay for a sex worker at Prey Speu is about two to three months. For cases of women who are HIV-positive or pregnant, the organisation can submit a letter to the Department of Social Affairs for early release, which takes six weeks to process. And for a response?

“Just 20 days,” Tha says.

Although little research has been done into condom usage among sex workers in the wake of the 2008 law, critics long feared it would lead to a decrease in use and a rise in sexually transmitted diseases.

Among sex workers with more than seven clients a week, the HIV rate is 14 per cent, according to 2011 data cited by the UNAIDS Cambodia office in the most recent survey focused specifically on sex workers. Daily medication is not available inside Prey Speu, so even those who are able to get out “early” may miss dozens of doses, risking resistance to the virus.

Somaly says she remembers five HIV-positive women in the room with her when she stayed for just a week in 2012. They weren’t allowed access to medication until they became visibly ill, she says.

Many women who are detained are mothers – including two interviewed this week – or are married with families. According to Nakagawa, even the fear of detention shapes parenting.

“They cannot share their sufferings with them,” she says. “But they are working for the survival of their children.”

Reform plans for Prey Speu were announced in November, as was a proposed moratorium on street sweeps and a switch to a voluntary admissions system – but little has changed as of yet. Mentally ill detainees are being moved to a new centre off-site, says Ministry of Social Affairs spokesperson Touch Channy.

“Now [the doctors] are on standby every day,” he says. “UNICEF Cambodia said there is actual reform.”

In the meantime, the centre’s continued operations have been widely condemned by civil society organisations on the ground.

“It’s the lynchpin of this abusive system, because being sent there is punishment that sex workers and other street people fear, and will pay bribes . . . to avoid,” says Robertson, of Human Rights Watch. “Closing it is not enough – it should be bulldozed.”

At the very least, Prey Speu’s foundations are shaky. Of the women Post Weekend spoke to, two had escaped – both within the past three months. Not to mention its inefficiencies.

“Women are arrested many times, and I can imagine that the police are tired of arresting the same women again and again,” Nakagawa says with a tinge of irony.

Billy Tai says the problems may run deeper: a corrupt police system, as well as inescapable conservatism when it comes to gender, means sex workers are disproportionately victimised. Anti-trafficking NGOs often carry out raids themselves or push the police to enforce the anti-trafficking law, he explains.

“It’s problematic that police are used to having the work done for them,” Tai says. “Unless you bribe them, it’s not likely they’ll do something, especially if they’re also in on the trade. And there is a gendered morality here: this idea that men can’t control their actions, but the law inherently punishes the woman for enticing the man to do what they’re told not to. It’s just so entrenched.”

As for Leakhena, her concerns are with her two sons, now 10 and 16, who are aware of her profession.

“The [elder] understands that without them I would not do this work… but he told me he wants to change schools because his friends gossip,” she says softly. “It is hard for us.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Additional reporting by Erin Handley.



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