Women in front of a Phnom Penh massage parlor on December 11. A 2003 survey estimated there are more than 18,000 sex workers in Cambodia, but subsequent estimates vary.
T wenty-year-old Sophy sits alone in a corner of a famous Phnom Penh nightclub where she has worked for the past eight years. She is demure and childishly awkward, but her poignant, beautiful face is fiery and fearful. Her voice is gentle, little more than a whisper.
"I was walking home to my family one night, when four boys from my neighborhood grabbed me, and raped me," Sophy said. "Then I wasn't a virgin any more. My dad was sick from cigarettes - he was dying with open wounds all over his legs. I wasn't good for anyone any more, so my mother took me down to this bar for foreigners, and I started being a prostitute. My mother worried about me and waited for me outside the bar every night, because I was 12 years old."
Sophy's experience echoes that of many sex workers in the bars and streets of Phnom Penh. Many of their careers begin with violence, and, according to interviews and recent reports, its specter haunts them always.
"Some customers are very bad; they don't give you any money, even after being with you for several days," said Sophy (not her real name). "Customers hit many girls."
All the street sex workers and brothel-based prostitutes questioned by the Post named violence and rape as their main fears. They barely mentioned AIDS.
"I always make them put on a condom," Sophy said. "But if I go with a man for four or five days, and he likes me, then not using a condom is no problem - especially if he has a blood test."
She said she was unaware of HIV's three-month latency period.
"But violence and HIV infection come together," said Ly Pisey, junior program officer for Womyn's Agenda for Change (WAC), which works with prostitutes throughout Cambodia. "For example, when there are gang rapes, they don't use condoms, or they use plastic sugar bags instead."
Pisey is convinced that the underlying cause of violence towards sex workers is discrimination, in all strata of society.
"Sex workers are considered bad girls - they make society bad," Pisey said.
"This discrimination is linked with violence. If people only talk about AIDS and things, and sex workers are not recognized as human beings with the same rights as other people, the problem of violence and abuse will still be there."
Violence includes rumlop bauk, or gang rape, which is an infamous trend in Cambodia, even among schoolboys. Violence and discrimination are easier to get away with when the crimes are committed by groups or authorities, Pisey says.
"Some police make us eat our own condoms [when they find them on us], or they put salt on our vaginas," said Preung Phanny, 42, a prostitute since 1985. She is also working as a district leader for the Women's' Network for Unity, a sex workers' association supported by WAC.
"The police beat us with sticks and throw rocks at us. They hate us - it's discrimination," Phanny said.
According to Pisey, sex workers suffer violence from gangsters, police, local authorities, and regular customers.
"Sometimes we don't know if violence and rapes are happening because they are too scared to report it," she said. "If sex workers have no power, how can they force a client to use a condom? When they refuse, the client will beat them, or tell the brothel owner."
Pisey said that some aid projects even exacerbate discrimination.
"The 100 Percent Condom Use program was promoted by the government, and they say 90 percent [of sex workers] now use condoms," Pisey said. "But when the police search sex workers, they say 'We have to arrest you - you have a condom, so you are a prostitute.' A USAID report said the 100 Percent Condom Use program was very effective - but was it? Gangsters use condoms to rape women now, so they protect themselves. Is that 100 Percent Condom Use success? The figures are not real. We used to work with figures, but they don't work."
But Pisey acknowledged the work of a recent Violence Against Women and Children in Cambodia (VAWCC) report titled "Sex Workers on the Street - Living with Violence" that identified the high vulnerability of sex workers and disturbing trends in abuse and violence.
The conclusion of the VAWCC report reads, "[Street sex workers] frequently suffer from violence such as gang rape ... are often harassed and illegally arrested by police, and suffer from stigma and discrimination."
Sex workers in Cambodia do not trust the authorities when it comes to assistance over violence or health, said Chan Dina, director of the Cambodian Prostitutes' Union.
"Sex workers are faced with gang rape but do not report it to the local authorities because they know that what they do is illegal," Dina said.
Sex workers said they often face violence from their boyfriends or husbands and the abuse is often fuelled by jealousy or illegal drugs.
The prevalent use of street drugs, increasingly the crystal form of methamphetamine known as "ice," is also a major problem among prostitutes, with about 60 percent of sex workers now using them, according to WAC employees.
Pisey said the plight of Cambodian sex workers is getting worse. USAID - the major donor for NGOs helping sex workers - changed its policy in 2004.
"Now they are focusing on reproductive health and trafficking," said Pisey. "These issues are totally different. Society discriminates against them, and now they are being discriminated against by NGO policy. It's all donor-driven."
By the numbers
Statistics released this year by
the NGO Violence Against Women and Children in Cambodia. The
information was gathered through months of interviews and workshops
with street sex workers in Phnom Penh.
54% named poverty as their reason for entering sex work
38% began working between 15 and 18 years old
42% are divorced
82.6% send money home to support family:
41% have six or more siblings
79% cannot write; 50% cannot read
29.1% have between 6 and 10 clients a day.
95% work seven days a week
70.8% say they have been gang raped
100% of sex workers who say they pay protection money, say they pay it to police