The Women's Network for Unity (WNU) is writing in response to the interview with Afesip President Somaly Mam titled "From Brothel to Boardroom" which ran in the Monday, November 3 edition of The Phnom Penh Post. We are writing to address the opinions and misconceptions of Somaly Mam.
WNU is a local NGO which is organised and run by sex workers who are coming together in their struggle to obtain rights within their chosen profession. The aforementioned interview with Somaly Mam makes a complete mockery of the current climate of sex work in Cambodia. WNU in no way condones trafficking, but we do, however, have the insight to differentiate between women who have been trafficked and women who chose sex work as a way to earn a living.
The generalisations made in the interview, while reflecting only Somaly's opinion, are a gross step backwards in the women's rights movement for Cambodia. Somaly refers to sex workers by stating:
"A lot of them have psychological problems. They agree to sell themselves. They are sex slaves because they have to survive. A lot of them say they are free but, for me, they are not free."
The statement is a blatant example of the lack of understanding displayed by NGOs, such as Afesip, who support the new Anti-Trafficking law. Someone as influential as Somaly should be educated enough to speak without insinuating that in order for a woman to choose to sell sex she has to be mentally ill.
WNU has organised the only event in Cambodia in which sex workers themselves spoke out against the law. Somaly passively and aggressively targets WNU when saying, "What I don't like is people who take the victims - I don't want to call them prostitutes, they're victims - who use them to fight against the law. I just want to say ‘Stop using these girls'. They have to make their own decisions. They are using victims for politics."
WNU in no way "used" these women, as our sex worker members voluntarily participated, using the event as a platform to express their independence and opposition to being labeled as "victims" or "trafficked women". Somaly also oversteps the bounds of politeness when referring to these women as "prostitutes" or sex slaves. The accepted term is Sex Worker.
While Somaly has done some good work, she needs to recognise that not all sex workers need to be "saved". It is pointless and a waste of resources to "rescue" women who have made what is an often very tough decision to sell sex rather than to see themselves or their families starve. Somaly should focus her energy where it is most needed: with women who have actually been trafficked.
Women's Network for Unity