Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - USAID accused of abetting slave trade

USAID accused of abetting slave trade

USAID accused of abetting slave trade

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been savaged in the influential

Asian Wall Street Journal for "aiding and abetting the slave trade" in

Cambodia through its HIV/AIDS strategies.

Professor Donna Hughes of the University of Rhode Island attacked the US government

aid agency for funding an HIV/AIDS study in the Svay Pak brothel district in 1999,

in the AWSJ's February 27 edition.

"When aid workers ... discovered women and girls enslaved in brothels, they

did nothing to free them. Instead, they overlooked the crime and blithely went on

with research on the enslaved victims," she wrote.

Hughes was referring to USAID funded research conducted on a Médicins sans

Frontières (MSF) project funded by the European Union.

The MSF project provided medical treatment for sexually transmitted infections, and

implemented assertiveness and self-esteem training designed to help the women negotiate

condom use. The project also aimed to create solidarity among sex workers.

Similar efforts had worked well in other countries, said Melissa May of the Population

Council, whose Horizon's Project conducted the research.

"Interventions such as these ... have proved highly effective in Thailand, India,

and the Dominican Republic in reducing STI rates, encouraging high condom use and

in creating a sense of empowerment and collaboration among sex workers and brothel

owners that helps to reduce violence and other criminal acts," May told the


But Hughes wrote that the project was "callous" and the research was "cruel".

"They wanted to see if they could create better relations between the slaves

and the masters," she wrote.

May rejected that, saying her organization condemned the human rights violations

inherent in forced prostitution, but "could help protect women from an early

death caused by AIDS".

"Unfortunately, our scientific organizations do not have the means to eliminate

the demand for prostitution around the world or the criminal industry that surrounds

it," she wrote in an email from Washington DC. "Nor do we have the power

to eliminate the poverty that drives women to seek income from sex work or their

families from putting them in such dire circumstances."

US Embassy officials also rejected Hughes' assessment.

"The article drew a conclusion based on one small part of what we do and would

have been a much more balanced if it had looked at all our activities here in Cambodia,"

said an embassy official.

The US State Department and USAID have a $2 million program that funds ten anti-trafficking

projects in Cambodia. They expect to increase funding in the coming year.

"If you look at all the work we're doing here, it's just the opposite [of aiding

trafficking]," said a USAID official at the Phnom Penh mission.

Hughes has criticized the $90,000 project before, both during testimony at the US

Congress and in a letter to Pope John Paul II. She is a key activist lobbying the

US government to take a stronger anti-prostitution stance in its trafficking and

aid programs around the world.

Such an approach was signaled in a new strategy released by USAID on February 27

and issued two days after a Presidential Directive on trafficking.

"[O]rganizations advocating prostitution as an employment choice or which advocate

or support the legalization of prostitution are not appropriate partners for USAID

anti-trafficking grants or contracts," the agency's new strategy states.

The US is a major funder of both anti-trafficking and HIV/AIDS programs in Cambodia,

though embassy officials said those programs would not be affected by the new strategy,

which they described as "establishing anti-trafficking principals" rather

than a change in policy.

Under current Cambodian law prostitution is not illegal but pimping and owning a

brothel are.

The consensus among NGOs working with sex-workers and victims of trafficking, as

well as the Ministry of Women's Affairs, is that the current law should be enforced

rather than changed.

When a draft version of the anti-trafficking law that proposed criminalizing prostitution

was presented to NGOs and experts in August 2002 it was met with a storm of protests.

That law has since stalled and the clause criminalizing sex work is not likely to

be adopted.

Similar protests followed the closure of karaoke bars in late 2001 and the crackdown

on Svay Pak in January.

But that is just the kind of measure Hughes approves of. In an article entitled "The

World's Sex Slaves Need Freedom, Not Condoms" in the Weekly Standard, Hughes

praised Phnom Penh for closing the brothel district and demonstrating "an alternative

solution that many NGOs and European governments thought unachievable".

But May pointed to the fact that Svay Pak had been closed several times before, which

suggested repeating the measure would again be ineffective.

"This is likely to be a continuing pattern until the root causes of trafficking

and prostitution are addressed," she wrote. "Preventing trafficking and

eliminating prostitution is primarily an issue of reducing poverty and creating viable

economic opportunities."


  • Prince Norodom Ranariddh passes away at 77

    Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the second son of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and former First Prime Minister of Cambodia, has passed away in France at the age of 77. “Samdech Krom Preah Norodom Ranariddh has passed away this morning in France just after 9am Paris-time,”

  • Cambodia purchases 4 million Molnupiravir tablets

    Cambodia has arranged for the purchase of four million US-made Molnupiravir pills – enough to treat 100,000 Covid-19 patients – even though the current rate of daily infections in Cambodia remains low. The medicine will be distributed to state hospitals, pharmacies and private clinics, according to the Samdech

  • No more Africa travel ban but new rules for arrivals

    The Ministry of Health has decided to lift the ban on travellers from or who have travelled through 10 African countries and instead issued a set of standard operating procedures to manage passenger arrivals at Cambodia’s international airports. The 10 African countries are Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho,

  • Rise in planned flights lifts travel hopes

    Six airlines have applied to resume flights in December, while two others have put in for additional flights and routes, according to State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) head Mao Havannall on November 29. These account for 43 new weekly domestic and international flights in December, up 16

  • Is Cambodia’s travel sector in for another cheerless holiday season?

    The travel and tourism sector was heaving back to life as borders started to reopen, promising a festive vibe for the holidays and New Year. But Omicron and other Covid-related issues are threatening to close the year on a bleak note ‘Seems [like] Covid-19 won’

  • Cambodia planning new border checkpoint at Thma Da

    Cambodia is looking into the possibility of opening a new Thma Da Border Checkpoint with Thailand to boost trade and tourism. The Ministry of Public Works and Transport said on December 4 that Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol led a technical working group