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Sex workers call for ‘safe zone’

Unidentified sex workers work the area around the capital’s Wat Phnom
Unidentified sex workers work the area around the capital’s Wat Phnom. Sovan Philong

Sex workers call for ‘safe zone’

Phnom Penh sex workers and rights advocates met yesterday to denounce police brutality and corruption, and called on the government to establish a zone where sex workers can operate in safety.

The plea was made during a press conference led by NGO Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), which was attended by around 100 sex workers, who complained police often sought bribes or sexual services rather than enforcing the law against prostitution.

“When police catch sex workers, they do not implement this law. Basically, does the woman have cash? If she does, she will be set free. And if she is gorgeous, they have to stay with the officers and then they can be freed, but if they are not sweet, they will be sent for processing,” said WNU president Keo Tha.

While prostitution is illegal in Cambodia, prior to the introduction of a 2008 law intended to combat human trafficking, brothels operated openly.

But sex workers and advocates say that the law heralded a brutal crackdown that saw women and girls working in the trade mistreated and stigmatised by officials.

In a report due to be published next month, researchers found that the heavy-handed response of authorities after the law’s introduction forced sex workers into more precarious settings for their work, placing them in greater danger of rape and sexual assault. The report states that sex workers less often sought HIV screenings because of the more erratic nature of their lifestyle outside of brothels, while they were also less inclined to practice safe sex out of fear of being caught with condoms.

According to Tha, while the WNU supported the law and all efforts to curb human trafficking, the amendment of several of its articles would guarantee fairer treatment for those working in the sex industry, as would the introduction of an area where they could engage in their work safely.

But according to the Interior Ministry’s Anti-Human Trafficking Department director Plo Pithey, such an arrangement would not be feasible. However, Pithey pledged to continue with schemes designed to lift sex workers out of the industry.

“We have educated them and discussed with City Hall about generating jobs for them, and some organisations have also trained them, so many are willing to liberate themselves from the business, which is good.”

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