In the current economic state of Cambodia, women are faced with limited opportunities and sex work is an attractive economic choice.
According to a 2004 Asia Development Bank report, most employed women in Cambodia work in the garment industry and earn $45 to $80 a month. A sex worker can earn $90 to $160 a month, so the money is more appealing working in the sex trade industry.
Worldwide, 10 million women sell sex to 75 million men, who then have sex with another 50 million people. Sex work is a fact of life in Cambodia.
From 1994, Popular Services International (PSI) has supplied approximately 300 million condoms to Cambodia. The mission of PSI is to improve the health of poor and vulnerable people in the developing world, by focusing on family planning, HIV and AIDS, health products and services and health communications.
The 100 per cent Condom Use Program (CUP) aims to reduce new HIV infections in Cambodia, and more than 90 per cent of guesthouses in Phnom Penh have condoms on display for their customers. However, the number of condoms sold has been decreasing during the last four years, with 27 million condoms sold in 2008 and 17 million sold in 2011.
Under pressure from the US, a national anti-trafficking law was established in 2008, criminalising sex work and adopting the broad definition of “trafficking”. This led to the closure of many brothels, and now thousands of sex workers work in underground massage parlors and karaoke bars.
They have to hide from law enforcement officials, which makes them more susceptible to police corruption and infection of HIV/AIDS.
Assuming that they are sex workers, police officers will arrest people who are caught with condoms. Possession of a condom may lead to jail time as the officers believe this is evidence that you are performing illicit activity.
The misinterpretation of the anti-trafficking law by police officers has also caused problems with people who distribute condoms to promote “Safe Sex” campaigns and the prevention of HIV and other diseases.
There have been reports that law enforcement officials have used the 100 per cent CUP as an excuse to harass and persecute sex workers. After their arrest, the women are sent to government centres, or so-called detention centres, which are not really prisons.
The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) has documented serious human rights abuses from the staff at the detention centres, including rape. In addition, the officers demanded money from the detainees in return for release from police detention.
This is just another example of police corruption, and their power over vulnerable people.
The Deputy Director of Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department of the Ministry of Interior stated that under the Cambodian Anti-Human Trafficking Law, there is no article mentioning that condoms could be used as evidence in an arrest, and that police will not use condoms as evidence for an arrest, with the exception of rape-related cases.
It’s a no-win situation for the people who are caught in possession of condoms and are illegally arrested.
I don’t know which one provides more protection – condoms or police officers.
The Social Agenda with Soma Norodom
The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.