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Business as usual for brothels

Business as usual for brothels

T HREE months after a very public police crack-down on prostitution in Phnom Penh, local brothels are once again open for business - and are thriving.

One brothel owner in the well-known red light district of Toul Kork said police barricades outside brothels in August and September did little to damage business.

"At first people were afraid to cross the police barricades, but that only lasted a few days," the owner, who would not be named, said.

Rather than deterring clients, the police presence "just added to the price".

An NGO official working to reduce prostitutes' health risks said: "For the first few days places remained shut, then the back doors opened and now it is almost back to normal.

"The police are still around but they just wave and smile - that's the only real difference."

It is also apparent that uniformed men make up a good percentage of clients visiting the district's sex establishments.

The August crackdown saw prostitutes being arrested, fined and even made to sign declarations that they would never work in the sex trade again.

Allegations were made of deportation threats in the case of Vietnamese nationals, or imprisonment.

Some brothel owners forced to close their doors were asked to sign agreements that they would pay a one million riel fine if they reopened.

The arrest of prostitutes led to similar demands for fines.

"Fines were paid by brothel owners to have the girls released, about $50 a girl," said one Toul Kork official.

"The girls have told us that if their owners did not come to pay their fines, some were forced to have sex with police officers before being released," the official said.

Police, who have denied such allegations, initially did much to try to keep prostitution invisible.

Now, however, it is hard to tell there ever was a crackdown. A night-time drive through Phnom Penh reveals a thriving sex industry in the traditional suburban areas renown for the sex trade.

Fears of another crackdown remain, though, prompting most prostitutes and those working to help them to ask for anonymity.

The aim of the government crackdown and that of NGOs and others working with prostitutes are the same - to clean up the prostitution problem - but they differ on the best means to do so.

Aid organizations and international experts advocate education, improved health care, job retraining and a say in decision-making processes as better alternatives to outlawing prostitution.

"Officially closing down the brothels will only force them to function in secret, which will make prostitution an underground industry," said Boua Chantou, writer and consultant for the Secretariat of the State for Women's Affairs.

Twenty-four international and local NGOs shared those sentiments when they signed a statement of concern in August this year about the forcible closures.

NGOs say many prostitutes are not free to leave their jobs even if they wanted to, their movements controlled by the brothel owners who "own" them.

According to research by the Cambodian Women's Development Association, nearly half of local prostitutes are said to be slaves, having been kidnapped or lured into the trade and having no freedom to leave.

Half are illiterate and without any other skills.

Experts say international precedence shows police crackdowns do not work. Cambodia need only to look at its neighbors, Thailand and the Philippines, which have conducted similar crackdowns, yet the industry still thrives.

They say the use of force and repression only pushes the industry underground - with prostitutes themselves, not the brothel owners, the biggest victims.

During times of heavy police monitoring, brothel owners must pay the police to remain open, increasing their costs and lowering wages for their sex workers.

"Most Khmer men have their first sexual experience with a prostitute, that is not going to change just because the government tells them to," said one Western NGO worker.

There are health consequences too. One Phnom Penh NGO has postponed opening a clinic to treat sexually transmitted diseases in an old brothel, for fear of attracting unwanted police attention.

Existing health clinics report a drop in clientele. At one Toul Kork clinic, charts on the walls show the decline in health inquiries and patients during late August and September.

Case numbers are increasing but have yet to reach previous levels.

"We remained open throughout the crackdown," said Dr Sam An, who runs the clinic. "(But) we had to stop some of our programs, such as the educational classes that we give on Aids and safe sex."

He said clinic staff were afraid to have too many girls in one spot in case the police came around.

Some prostitutes, particularly Vietnamese ones, were also frightened about visiting the clinic.

"The Khmer girls know this is normal and are not scared of the police, but the Vietnamese girls are still too scared."

He felt that many Vietnamese girls might have been treated worse by the police and feared deportation.

When prostitutes considered it too dangerous to go to clinics such as his, they often flocked to dubious private ones.

The level of service and safety was never assured in such clinics, scattered all over Phnom Penh, which offered STD diagnosis, treatment and abortions.

A Toul Kork official said: "We have heard of cases where girls have been given medication for a common cold to treat highly contagious and dangerous STDs."

Dr Kang, a Vietnamese-trained doctor who runs a private clinic, admitted that "many times I do not have the proper equipment or medicines."

In other clinics, "the doctors do not always have medical training and do not know what they are doing," he said.

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