T HE government's response to sex trafficking in Cambodia, the Law on Suppression
of Trafficking of Humans, was passed by the National Assembly in January, imposing
sentences between 10 and 20 years for pimps and brothel owners.
Cambodian human rights activists have welcomed the law, but are concerned that it
may also worsen conditions for sex workers. While the law does not ciminalize sex
workers, activists say it may lead to closure of brothels, driving the sex trade
"We are happy to have this law because trafficking is the problem. We want to
fight against it and stop it," said Kien Serey Phal, the President of the Cambodian
Women's Development Association.
"But Article 7 sounds like all the brothels must be closed down and this is
not good," she said.
"In Cambodia sex workers do not have any collective organisation so the brothel
is the only point that organisations concerned with health, especially HIV/Aids,
can meet and talk with sex workers."
Control of prostitution would be better than brothel closure, argued Kien Serey Phal.
Amendments should be added to the law enabling registration of sex workers, health
checks and monitoring of violations of their rights, she said.
Article 7 penalizes "any person who opens a place for committing a debauchery
or obscene acts." According to some sources this may give scope to arbitrary
enforcement, opening the door to police and military extortion of brothel owners
To counter this, Kem Sokha, who heads the parliamentary commission on human rights,
proposed several amendments to the law which were not adopted. He also questioned
the jailing of parents who sell their children, permitted by Article 5.
"If parents are put in jail, where will the children who have been sold to brothels
go to live? Many parents sell their children because of poverty. They must be prosecuted,
but if they are put in jail the children will suffer more," he cautioned.
Already there are widespread reports of police and military involvement in trafficking
and protection of brothels. "We are afraid this law will not be effective because
the people enforcing it already have their hands in the business," said Kien
Ek Kreth, the Deputy Chief of Judicial Police, said that allegations of police and
military involvement in the sex trade are baseless.
"It's true there are people dressed like police but they are impostors. Anyone
can go to Toek Thala Market near Pochentong airport and buy a police uniform,"
Human rights activists and politicians acknowledge that prostitution control through
legalisation may be difficult given Cambodian feelings on the subject and the fact
that the Constitution prohibits prostitution.
"We should allow some brothels to be open so we can control them, like we do
with casinos," said Kem Sokha. "The problem is that the Constitution does
not allow prostitution. It's a big problem," he added.
In a separate development last week, the Phnom Penh Municipality has issued a directive
ordering brothels in the city centre, including Tuol Kork, to close their doors and
Deputy Governor Khau Meng Hean said the directive does not aim to close brothels
but relocate them to "the outskirts of the city".
"It is not acceptable for brothels to be located near where families are living.
Do other countries allow brothels to operate next to schools?' he asked.
The deputy governor added that if city brothels do not respond to the directive the
police will be used to remove sex workers.
"If they do not move police will collect them by car and take the sex workers
back to the provinces they came from," he said.
CWDA president Kien Serey Phal was skeptical of the Municipality's move, following
attempts in August 1994 and July 1995 to shut down prostitution in Phnom Penh.
She questioned whether the two weeks notice for brothels to move would allow them
enough time to find alternate premises.
Phal also questioned the wisdom of encouraging brothels to move to outlying city
areas, which were to rural places where women and children sold into the sex trade
usually came from.