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
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
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