On a recent afternoon in Tuol Kork district, a slight woman named Dany spoke urgently to the HIV-positive prostitute sitting centimetres away from her in a wooden hut.
The prostitute told Dany how she escaped from police who cursed and chased her the night before. She was lucky; she said her friend, a fellow prostitute, was arrested. Both had taken drugs and were roaming the streets in search of clients.
She said that when you use drugs, you look unhealthy and that affects your ability to get clients. She added that she knows other ways of making money, like washing clothes or selling food. You have to think about your future and find another way fo making a living.
Dany is a member of the Cambodian Prostitution Union, an organisation run for sex workers, by sex workers. She used to be a sex worker herself. Like the prostitute, she is HIV-positive, and she was once a drug
The union has advocated for the rights of sex workers since its formation in 1998 – documenting cases of abuse, educating workers about HIV/AIDS and training workers to become peer counsellors.
The Cambodian Women Development Agency helped organise it after educating prostitutes through its health and HIV/AIDS programme, said CWDA coordinator Keo Sichan. The CWDA has supported the union by providing money, but the union operates on its own in every other respect.
“We are independent,” said Chan Dyna, the leader of the CPU. “We [show them they] have enough skill to be strong on their own.”
Rights workers say the CPU and groups like it provide an important service for a population that has frequently been targeted by law enforcement in recent years.
“Organisations like CPU play an important role in ensuring that the voices of those most affected by crackdowns and sweeps are heard,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “It is vital for the government, donors, human rights groups and anti-trafficking groups to consult with sex worker unions and listen to their views. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen enough in Cambodia.”
In fact, the CPU says, ever since the adoption of the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation in March 2008, supporting and educating sex workers has become increasingly difficult.
The law forbids prostitution and the solicitation of sex; any item that “excites or stimulates sexual desire” (including condoms); and activities viewed as supporting human trafficking. As punishment for all such offences, it calls for fines of between 3,000 and 10,000 riels (US$2.50) and one to six days in prison.
CPU leaders say the law has prevented the union from growing during a period marked by increased scrutiny from law enforcement, a trend documented by a number of groups, including HRW.
Chan Dyna said union leaders approached the Ministry of Interior in 2008 to become a legal NGO in the hope of supporting themselves without CWDA assistance, and that they were denied recognition on the basis of their name.
“[With the] new law in early 2008 – when we went to the Ministry of Interior, they wouldn’t allow us to be a group, with a name like this, the word ‘prostitute,’” Chan Dyna said.
In response, union leaders are considering a name change, and will discuss the prospect at a meeting on Thursday. Chan Dyna said the union would brainstorm “four or five” options and vote on a favourite. Keo Sichan said one possibility was “Solidarity for Women”.
New documents highlighting the name change will then be sent to the Ministry of Interior, Keo Sichan said, so that the CPU can potentially become a registered NGO.
What’s in a name?
By taking this step, CPU leaders say, they will be better equipped to respond to changes in the sex trade that have come out of the 2008 law.
According to a July 2010 HRW report, hundreds of prostitutes were arrested and abused without being officially charged after the 2008 law was passed. But although brothels have been shut down, sex workers have continued to operate in different venues and under the new label “entertainment workers”.
Keo Sichan said there were about 36,000 entertainment workers – including beer and karaoke girls – nationwide, and that about 80 percent engaged in client-sponsored sexual activities. The going rate is $1 for a sex act at the host facility, and $10 to $15 for a night of unlimited sex, Keo Sichan said.
“They look like staff, but after work [they can become sex workers],” Keo Sichan said. “Now there’s a new name – a good name. Sex workers have gone underground.”
Tia Phalla, deputy director of the National AIDS Authority, said the changing nature of sex work had made it more difficult to educate women about HIV/AIDS prevention.
“Sex workers became free – no one can communicate with them,” Tia Phalla said. “It causes problems for us when the girls’ primary job is selling beer. When we enter beer gardens, [the beer girls] will say they’re not sex workers.”
Chan Dyna and Keo Sichan agree, and hope that a name change – and the NGO status they believe it will bring – will increase outreach capabilities.
“With the name change, life will be easier for us,” Keo Sichan said.
Keo Thea, police chief of the municipal anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection bureau in Phnom Penh, said the current name of the CPU would be “likely to encourage more women to become
Though he could not comment on the prospect of the union obtaining NGO status, he said omitting the word “prostitute” from its name might prompt officials and others to view it more kindly.
“If they want more funds, it’s better that they help the girls to get out of, not to encourage them to engage in [prostitution],” he said. “They should help girls to have other
For her part, Pung Chhiv Kek, founder and president of local rights group Licadho, said she thought a name change for the CPU was “probably necessary”, so that it could more effectively increase access to information about STDs and put an end to police justifying alleged abuses against its members.
More broadly, though, she said the shelving of the term prostitute in favour of entertainment workers was “a way to bypass the hypocrisy of trying to hide the problem by legal interdiction”.
“Getting rid of prostitution is impossible,” she said, “or at least it would take long-term changes in the society and male culture around the world.”