The sign at the entrance to Svay Pak: We love safe sex. So please wear condoms.
e love safe sex' proclaims a large billboard at the side of
Route 5, eleven kilometers north of Phnom Penh. With its pictures of men, women and
condoms, the sign is a gateway inviting visitors to the notorious Svay Pak brothel
village, renowned internationally for the easy availability of child sex.
Down the road and around a corner are some 18 brothels and seven massage parlors
where for nearly a decade, foreign and local visitors have taken their pick of hundreds
of young Vietnamese girls and sex workers with little government interference.
When the government closed the area during a major police crackdown in mid-January,
it hoped that the 340 sex workers, along with the detrimental impact Svay Pak had
on the country's international image, would disappear.
Yet the latest closure has come under fire from almost all those the Post spoke to:
from NGO staff and health workers, to international trafficking experts, HIV program
coordinators and the sex workers themselves, of whom 200 remain in the area.
All say that such measures - closing Svay Pak and moving the workers on - do not
decrease demand, but simply make it harder to provide health services, condoms and
protection to sex workers.
Kim Green, HIV/AIDS coordinator at CARE, says the closures will only serve to drive
the industry underground.
"By cracking down, you are losing an opportunity to do something about getting
them out of their situation," she says. "It also sends a message to brothel
owners and pimps who are peddling in the child sex trade that they need to keep children
hidden away, which further decreases the likelihood of being able to reach them.
"The real issue is that the demand is there and Cambodia is widely known among
foreign men as a place you can buy children easily," Green says.
Her opinion is shared by an expert in international trafficking, who preferred to
remain anonymous. He says closures do not decrease prostitution or child sexual exploitation;
they simply put those selling sex at greater risk.
"It is much more dangerous for them to be prostitutes in the street or in worse
areas than before," he says. "This crackdown will increase sexual exploitation,
and increase pimping, because the distance between the customer and prostitute is
bigger so you need more middle people."
HIV experts also say that if sex workers do not have access to safe clinics and to
condoms, the rate of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among workers and
clients will increase. Figures from 2002 show that 29 percent of commercial sex workers
are HIV positive.
Geeta Sethi, country coordinator at UNAIDS, says that experiences from other countries
show brothel closures have a highly detrimental effect on efforts to prevent HIV.
"The government has a policy for HIV prevention in the brothels, but there is
no systematic policy and government work being done with street-based sex workers,"
Sethi says. "The stigma increases because it is seen as illegal, so sex workers
and clients are less likely to use STD services, and sex workers are less likely
to carry condoms."
Several sex workers told the Post that the only way they could survive was to sell
sex. When brothels were raided, they were forced to move to the streets where they
lose access to condoms.
Forty-year-old Keo Tha worked in a massage parlor in Svay Pak until the latest closure.
She shares the concerns of many of her colleagues that she will now contract HIV/AIDS.
She has no other way to earn a living.
"We face difficulties now - the girls have to go outside to find clients and
don't carry condoms with them," she says. "If it is like this maybe I will
get AIDS in the future. I have to put myself at risk because I need to feed my children."
Although figures vary widely, the Cambodian Human Development Report 2000 estimates
there are around 80,000 to 100,000 commercial sex workers in the country. Thirty
percent are under 18.
In addition, many women work as indirect sex workers in massage parlors or as beer
girls. What is widely acknowledged is that the sex industry, and exploitation of
children for sex, is burgeoning, especially in Phnom Penh.
The latest police crackdown on Svay Pak is yet another in a long line of poorly planned
efforts to shut the area over almost a decade. The village was burned down in 1995.
Other city brothel areas such as those in Tuol Kork have also been regularly closed,
only to reopen soon afterwards.
In November 2001 Prime Minister Hun Sen abruptly ordered the closure of all karaoke
bars in a move designed 'to protect people from criminal activities associated with
The shutdown was widely criticized by NGO workers, who correctly predicted it
would force thousands of indirect sex workers on to the streets where they were far
Janet Ashby, a regional consultant with the UN Inter-Agency Project Against Trafficking
in Women and Children in the Mekong Sub-Region, says the karaoke ban had a devastating
"We know from the crackdown on karaoke that a number of women ended up on the
streets who were formerly in brothels," Ashby says. "They were gang-raped,
not paid, and had nowhere safe to wash and sleep."
So why did the government act again to close Svay Pak? Laurence Gray, regional coordinator
for advocacy and child protection with NGO World Vision, says a number of factors
"Politically it was embarrassing for the government at the time they were hosting
the ASEAN Tourism Forum," he says. "And there has been international media
attention on Svay Pak, including details of websites which give information on the
accessibility of children and the attractiveness of the area for sex tourists."
Former city governor Chea Sophara admits his ambition was largely an attempt to improve
the country's image. The municipality's latest action comes, he says, after trying
unsuccessfully for years to close the area. The result is "good for the women,
good for Cambodia, good for Chea Sophara".
"We want to close it down, it makes a bad image for Cambodia," Sophara
said. "[These are] not Cambodian women, not our people. The police have made
a good decision. The Russei Keo district police are very good men, very good guys.
They are committed to doing it."
Speaking before he was fired on February 11, Sophara said his ambition was to end
all sex work in Cambodia. He dismisses the idea that closing brothels puts women
"[Allowing Svay Pak] degrades our culture and our ladies and our people because
we never met like this," he says. "Cambodian people are Buddhists, and
for 1,000 years in our history Cambodian women never met like this."
Instead, he says, prostitution and human trafficking only arrived after the UN intervened
here in 1993.
World Vision's Laurence Gray says some Svay Pak residents have said that one benefit
is that the closure will reduce certain social problems associated with the brothels,
including drugs, gangs and violence. However they also point out that previous brothel
closures have led to more rapes in the community.
Health workers say the downside is that many of the women have been forced to flee
to other parts of the country such as Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, where there is
less support and access to NGO health services.
It is legal under Cambodian law to engage in prostitution - voluntarily selling sex.
However, operating or owning a brothel and forcing others to sell sex is not. Observers
say the latest incident shows the government has no clear policy on whether to regulate
or close down the trade. Rather it carries out ad hoc crackdowns in reaction to local
and international pressure.
Such an indecisive stance serves only to punish the sex workers, instead of pimps
and brothel owners. And in the case of Svay Pak, the human traffickers, who exploit
thousands of children and women throughout Southeast Asia, remain free.
"The police action sees the children and sex workers as the problem and doesn't
give them any dignity through the process," Gray says. "It didn't have
a big focus on the prosecution of those profiting from the sex trade."
The UN's Ashby says a far more methodical approach is required.
"Rather than cracking down, the authorities should work with local authorities,
brothel owners, sex workers and service providers to regulate conditions and prevent
exploitation, in particular to ensure there are no underage sex workers," she
Some in government agree. The Minister of Women's and Veterans' Affairs, Mu Sochua,
has for years called for better law enforcement and the prosecution of perpetrators.
"To close such a big industry will need a good plan and cooperation between
partners and a strong follow-up and prosecution of traffickers," she says. "And
until now I don't think there have been any prosecutions of the [Svay Pak] perpetrators
"I think the news that victims were dispersed to different places is not such
good news, because then we have to follow up and protect them," she says.
1997: Three Vietnamese girls who worked in a brothel in Svay Pak. The brothel across the street was known to employ girls as young as 12 and 13, though they were usually kept out of view.
The Ministry of Interior began a five-year campaign with NGOs to combat child sexual
exploitation in 2000, and established an anti-human-trafficking and juvenile protection
police unit last year.
Ashby says some ministries are working hard to tackle the issue.
"We should be clear that the government has done some excellent work in stopping
child sex tourism, and they have a hotline to call to inform about child sex exploitation
and trafficking," Ashby says. "The Ministry of Women's Affairs is also
doing a tremendous information campaign."
But child trafficking and development professionals say that if sexual exploitation
of women and children is to cease, two major factors must change.
First, poverty must be reduced so that thousands of women are not forced into prostitution
in order to survive. The second requirement is to cut demand, not just from Cambodians
but also from foreign sex tourists and pedophiles.
Kim Green from CARE says that reducing child exploitation by foreign visitors can
only be achieved by strictly punishing offenders.
"The issue is law enforcement and the government needing to put the fear of
God into foreign men to stop them from coming," she says.
Rosanna Barbero, the director of Oxfam's Womyn's Agenda for Change, says poverty
is the overriding factor forcing women into prostitution.
"The starting point is not the people in the brothel," Barbero says. "The
burgeoning sexual industry is the outcome of the growing social and economic difficulties
faced by the majority of the Cambodian population to sustain a livelihood."
She says that the increasing cost of health care and education means more and more
families end up in debt. This, coupled with rising unemployment, is forcing thousands
of young people to leave their villages in search of work in urban areas.
"They end up doing what they can when the only thing they have left is their
bodies. They have no skills, they have no assets," Barbero says.
Gray from World Vision shares Barbero's focus on the need to cut poverty.
"The easy issue is to shut the brothels down, but the harder issue to address
is the social issues of why people have poverty, and also the profiteering from this
trade," he says. "Police action needs to link with measures to build livelihood
alternatives. Child protection concerns such as sexual exploitation will continue
to emerge while basic livelihood needs of families cannot be met."
But that will take time. What is clear is the complete difference in opinion on the
action needed between some authorities and those whose lives are affected by their
NGO staff and sex workers say the women have no option but to sell their bodies,
and that the sex trade will continue. But Sophara believes that closing brothels
reduces demand, and said it is easy for the women to find other work.
"They should get another job like [working in a] garment factory, working in
rice fields, as motodups, soft drink sellers, [running] small shops, or go to school,"
he said. "There are many jobs they can do, not just working in brothels."