The day began with a group of women singing on stage about how to prevent HIV/AIDS.
Then came seven transgender dancers, adorned with gold jewelry, make-up, and wearing
red and brown silk clothes. With frangipani flowers in their hair, they danced to
a traditional Khmer tune and threw petals at the crowd from silver cups.
"Power to the Women's Network For Unity," sex workers shout at the anniversary celebrations.
It was the start of celebrations marking the second anniversary of the sex workers'
collective, known as the Women's Network for Unity (WNU). The energy and excitement
that characterized the opening continued throughout the day as more than 300 sex
workers and NGO staff, all clad in yellow t-shirts bearing the slogan 'Women united
to help each other', enjoyed the event designed to help some of Cambodia's most marginalized
That marginalization is the reason for the WNU's existence. In June 2000, five NGOs
helped the country's sex workers establish a collective, with the main objective
to develop solidarity among women working in the industry.
A press statement from the WNU explains the need:
"They were stigmatized and discriminated against by the very men who sought
their services; violent treatment and rape were not uncommon responses to women's
requests for condom use; and the women themselves seemed isolated from the friendship
of their peers."
Two years later the network has more than 3,000 members in 13 provinces. The anniversary
celebrations alone proved the network's success. Members organized the day themselves
and audience was packed: Princess Rattana Devi was there, as was Mu Sochua, the Minister
of Women's and Veteran's Affairs. Other members of parliament joined television crews,
NGO representatives and others to record and praise their achievements.
One NGO that helped create the network was Oxfam's Womyn's Agenda for Change. Director
Rosanna Barbero says sex workers used to feel worthless and not human; some were
"Now they've shed the victim mold and are reclaiming their lives and banding
together in solidarity," she says. "They have the strength to stand up
and say: 'We are human and we are looking after our families the only way we can.'"
Mu Sochua says she is extremely proud of the network members' achievements.
"I feel courage and togetherness and wholeness," she says. "The light
in this very dark tunnel for our sisters and nieces is already here. It is in their
commitment to make the changes for themselves."
The effectiveness of the network in giving women a voice is recognized across the
board. CPP legislator Men Sam On believes the sex worker's network should be a model
for other vulnerable groups.
"After listening to the stories and struggle of our sisters and nieces to live
and be recognized as human beings with rights and value I feel excited and full of
praise," she says. "You [sex workers] should enjoy the same rights as everyone
else and no one should violate your rights.
"As a member of parliament I fully support the Women's Network for Unity and
would like to appeal to other women to participate in this activity towards positive
change for living standards and the social environment and to strengthen [women's]
self-determination and improve problem solving."
There is also recognition among NGOs and the government that sex workers are key
to the prevention of HIV/AIDS and that society can no longer afford to ignore their
existence. Dr Tia Phalla, the general secretary of the National Aids Authority, credits
sex workers with significantly reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
"Previously no one paid attention to sex workers and they were excluded from
society," he says. "Yet outside the family 100-200,000 men go every day
and have sex.
"Now with the participation of sex workers there is 90 percent condom use. Previously
it was 70 percent, so now 100,000 people have already been saved [from HIV]. Participation
by sex workers is very important. If society discriminates against them many people
Twenty-four year old Srey Mao, speaking on behalf of the network, says that conditions
are still very difficult: sex workers are raped and mistreated by authorities, and
those who work in parks are beaten and raped by youths.
"We are not different," she says. "We are the same as other women
who have the intention to build a bright future but this intention is still a dream
that we cannot make come true."
Women tell of poverty, abuse and rejection
Many of the sex workers were willing to share their stories. The Post talked to
three about their lives and how the network has helped them.
Network member Manh Chhreup has been a sex worker since she was 13 years old.
Now 30, Chhreup has known she is HIV positive for six years.
Sex workers act out a brief drama on aspects of their work.
"I became a sex worker because my parents were very poor and my siblings did
not have money to go to school. My neighbor told me that if I came to work in Phnom
Penh I would become rich and have gold. But she sold me in Sihanoukville and I was
forced to have sex with men without using condoms.
"If I refused to have sex with clients [the brothel owner] would beat me. Then
I moved to work in Koh Kong province in a brothel and I jumped into the sea to try
to escape. I missed my parents very much and wanted to return to my home town. I
swam away, but the police saw me and saved me from the sea. They helped me to come
back to Phnom Penh.
"When I came back I met my mother and she was sick with lung disease so I decided
to be a sex worker again to make some money. The police still arrest me and beat
me and the brothel owner also hits me with a broomstick. I say: 'You arrest me and
take my money - if you are good, why don't you arrest the youths and the gangs in
the street. Why do you arrest us and take our money?'
"The network has explained a lot to me. We have a meeting each month and medical
check ups. When I went in I found out I was HIV positive. I didn't understand what
HIV was. I wanted to tear up the test slip and let myself die.
"Then the network explained things to me and gave me advice and encouragement.
A lot of my neighbors still discriminate against me. They will not eat with me and
they say: 'I am afraid you will transmit the disease to me so I won't rent you a
house'. People say: 'Be careful, she will give the disease to your children.'
"The network has made my life better and strengthened my self-esteem and understanding.
Now I use condoms all the time and [the WNU] teaches us how to clean ourselves and
love ourselves. I didn't understand this before.
"We protest against police [brutality] and strengthen our self-esteem as women.
We are encouraged to speak up against the boss so he doesn't look down on us. The
police always look down on us because they say that women transmit the virus to the
"I don't think about the future. I just want to learn sewing and knitting and
also I want the HIV pill to prolong my life. I ask all the nurses not to discriminate
against HIV victims."
Linda, 31, was an Angkor beer girl in Phnom Penh for ten years.
"When I got married my husband bullied me especially mentally, so I got divorced
and my husband married again. Then I started to work as a beer girl in hotels and
"The network helps my self-esteem, to know my rights to protest, and for protection
measures against HIV. I have changed a lot. Before I didn't think about condom use
and other things, but now I understand. If the client does not want to use a condom
I cannot stay with them.
"We come together to help each other on issues such as how to prevent HIV. For
example these days if people look down on us and say things, I don't listen to them.
We have to give value to ourselves; no one else can give it to us.
"Now I am no longer a beer girl. I sell grilled beef and food instead. I think
my life will get better and better because no one will put pressure on me. I control
Prom Hen, 39, is originally from Prey Veng. She has been a sex worker in Phnom Penh
"My parents died in the Khmer Rouge [regime] so I was an orphan and had to support
my four siblings. When I came from my hometown I lived under some-one's house, but
they poured dirty water on us so I decided to become a sex worker to buy food for
"There was discrimination against me from my neighbors but I never replied.
I just hid inside and cried. When I became angry I wanted to jump in the river and
kill myself, but I always thought of my brothers and sisters and this stopped me.
"The discrimination has lessened now that I am a member of the network, because
I feel when they curse me I have a right to protest. The villagers looked down on
us, but now some people respect us and we have relationships like normal people.
Only drunken men still curse us.
"My life is very difficult. Sometimes the men took me away and didn't wear a
condom and then I got pregnant. I have three children, and now I always use condoms.
"This year I haven't made much money and the future of my family is a problem.
My siblings are without work. Last year before the karaoke closed I worked in a bar
and made a lot of money. I have done everything: sex dancing, massage, karaoke bars
"I feel very happy [that I am in the network]. In my life I have only ever had
people look down on me, but now I have met many high-ranking people and been shown
on television, I feel I have a lot of freedom."