A new report due to be published next month has warned of the detrimental effects to public health created by the heavy-handed policing of sex workers in the capital, though some experts have urged caution in interpreting the study’s results.
The paper, Conflicting Rights: How the Prohibition of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation Infringes the Right to Health of Female Sex Workers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is set to appear in the June edition of semiannual public health journal Health and Human Rights. It saw the study’s authors travel to Cambodia in 2009 and 2011 to conduct in-depth interviews with sex workers between the ages of 15 and 29, in which the authors asked questions exploring health conditions, safe-sex practices and how the workers were treated by authorities.
The fieldwork followed the introduction of a 2008 anti-trafficking law, with the report highlighting the allegedly brutal nature of the ensuing crackdown by police, as well as the detrimental health effects of forcing sex workers out of brothels and into more informal settings, such as discos, karaoke bars and the street.
The report also uses witness testimony to outline how the precarious nature of such settings left sex workers vulnerable to rape, sexual assault and violence – sometimes at the hands of police officers themselves.
“They [police] beat and hurt us, curse us and some even hit us with rocks. They cursed and threatened us very badly,” a 29-year-old sex worker identified as “Kanha” told researchers.
That approach drew a warning from the report’s authors that Cambodia’s exponential gains in combating HIV – with general population prevalence slashed from 2.7 per cent in 2001 to less than 1 per cent in 2010 – could be set back.
According to the study, the erratic schedule involved in working as an independent “freelance” sex worker, as well as the dangers inherent in being branded a sex worker if condoms were found on their person by police, meant many of the women and girls reported not submitting themselves to HIV screenings and not practicing safe sex.
“Cambodia’s AIDS epidemic remains volatile and the current legal environment has the potential to undermine prevention efforts by promoting stigma and discrimination, impeding prevention uptake and coverage, and increasing infections,” the report states.
According to the authors, access to health services constitutes a human right that anti-trafficking efforts should not impede upon, and by equating sex work to trafficking, the anti-trafficking law increased the exploitation of sex workers.
Yet, experts in the field received the study with caution.
The Cambodian Women’s Development Agency (CWDA), an NGO promoting women’s rights that engages in outreach with sex workers and offers skills training such as weaving classes, said the savagery depicted from police is not seen at that level today, though it has not been completely stamped out.
Meanwhile, fears of increasing HIV rates have not become a reality since the fieldwork was completed four years ago.
“Actually, we saw the infection rate of HIV/AIDS drop in 2014, and we are targeting an infection rate of zero [new infections] by 2020,” said CWDA program coordinator Keo Sichan, who helped facilitate the new study by recruiting the women and girls for the surveys.
Sichan was also keen to emphasise that brothels should not be romanticised in any way.
“When there is a brothel, there is always violence carried out by clients against the women,” she said.
Meanwhile, according to Taina Bien-Aime, executive director at NGO Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, differentiating voluntary sex work from sex trafficking overlooks the fact that many workers who characterise themselves as choosing to be in the industry originally arrived there through trafficking, often as minors.
In fact, given anyone under the age of consent is technically a trafficked person, a proportion of those surveyed for the study were trafficking victims at the time.