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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

Post.

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."

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