A little more than two months after her death, nearly 50 sex workers and their supporters gathered on Friday to honour the memory of Pen Kunthea, a Phnom Penh sex worker who drowned in the Tonle Sap river on the night of January 1 while fleeing Daun Penh district security guards.
A mother struggling to support two children, including a polio-afflicted son, Kunthea has taken on a somewhat symbolic status among Phnom Penh sex workers struggling to assert their rights, even as her death deeply rattled the community.
“Today, our objective is to celebrate the memory of Pen Kunthea, who died 62 days ago now,” said Pech Polet, managing director of the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), an organisation that advocates for the rights of sex workers.
“Our second objective is to strengthen solidarity among sex workers, among women’s organisations, and to stop discrimination and give dignity to sex workers.”
For Polet, it was important for the ceremony to remind those in attendance that Kunthea was an ordinary woman in addition to being a sex worker.
“All women are human beings and they deserve dignity, freedom from harm, freedom from violence,” she said.
The ceremony began at 4:30pm on Preah Sisowath Quay, 300 metres east of Wat Phnom – not far from where Kunthea died – and lasted nearly two hours. Organisers from WNU laid a white cloth on the ground for attendees to write messages for Kunthea.
The attendees sang together and proceeded to walk to the site of Kunthea’s death, beside a group of tourist boats docked on the Tonle Sap riverbank. There, they boarded one of the boats and placed lotus flowers in the river.
But as badly as Kunthea’s death shocked those she worked with, sex workers say the harassment from authorities that ultimately led to her death persists.
“Nothing changed,” said Kong Savoeun, after the ceremony.
A sex worker who ran from security guards with Kunthea on the night she drowned, Savoeun continues to work in a Phnom Penh karaoke bar. “When I am standing and waiting for clients, the police still crack down, and I fall to the floor and get small injuries,” she said. This happens “at least once a week”, she said.
But despite the harassment, Savoeun said the ceremony gave her hope. “Before, we just kept quiet, until now when we come to celebrate” Kunthea’s life, she added.
Dim Sreyoun, a sex worker from Kandal province, also found inspiration and comfort in the ceremony. In a previous interview in February, Sreyoun said that after Kunthea’s death, she was too scared to work in Phnom Penh. The ceremony, along with regular meetings between sex workers organised by WNU, helped change her mind.
“I am not afraid anymore, I am still coming [to Phnom Penh],” said Sreyoun. “Because of the unity among the sex workers after Kunthea died, we got more feeling that we are united,” she said.
“Not only one woman died this way,” said Soma Yunont, who has been a sex worker for 10 years, referring to the violence sex workers face from law enforcement authorities and their clients.
“Many other sex workers are very worried about how to make money for their livelihood, and we hope the police will come back with a better solution rather than continue the actions they have committed against sex workers before,” she said.
To that end, said Keo Tha, a former masseuse who now works as an education and health officer for WNU, advocates “really need to raise more awareness to the public, to let all the women know that the sex workers are also women and also need equal rights like other women”.
The night before the ceremony, Tha spoke to an audience of university students in Phnom Penh, explaining how economic necessity brings women to the sex industry, and stressing the importance of respecting the rights of all women, regardless of their social status. To underscore her point, Tha showed the students a picture of Kunthea, printed on a sheet of A4 paper.
“Tomorrow, I will go to a celebration for a sex worker who died,” she said. “She was raising two children.”
Even though Kunthea was a sex worker, said Tha, “people in Cambodia should know that she was a human being”.