HUNDREDS of sex workers have been targeted by a government crackdown on vice in recent weeks, according to new figures, sparking concern that police raids are sending a marginalised group further underground and possibly hindering HIV-prevention efforts.
Authorities as well as advocates who work with sex workers have reported a series of police raids – which have been prompted by a call from Prime Minister Hun Sen this month to stamp out prostitution – that have shut down karaoke bars, massage parlours, brothels and cafés.
Figures compiled in the report, produced by a local NGO that asked not to be identified because the issue is considered sensitive, show that since March 1, police have shut down at least 59 “entertainment establishments” where the indirect sex trade had thrived.
The raids have seen at least 280 sex workers lose their jobs, including 85 who disappeared or fled, according to officials with the NGO.
The raids were scattered across the capital and in some provinces. A March 5 bust of 29 brothels and houses in Kampong Cham, for instance, sent 114 sex workers into hiding.
Bith Kimhong, director of the Ministry of Interior’s anti-human trafficking bureau, said Monday that the raids were part of the government’s broader effort to suppress human trafficking.
“The government set 2010 to be a year for combating human trafficking in a bid to protect women from being abused or exploited,” he said.
He added that he didn’t have precise figures for the number of businesses shut down, but that officials planned to continue the raids, a decision he said was reached during a March 10 meeting between Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema and National Police Chief Neth Savoeun.
In the meeting, the officials decided “to close any entertainment places without licences immediately”, Bith Kimhong said, adding: “Or if the places have legal licences but run prostitution, we will crack down also. We want to eliminate the reputation that Cambodia is a sex tourism destination.”
Health advocates and those who work with sex workers, however, worry that the police raids may restrict access to key HIV prevention tools such as condoms and sex education.
Ly Pisey, a technical assistant with the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), a Phnom Penh collective of sex workers, said the raids could intensify challenges that emerged during a series of brothel raids in 2008.
“Before, you could just go to [brothels]. It was easy to provide them information, to talk about rights, condoms, safe sex and how to access health care,” she said. “Now, if you go … and ask, ‘Are you a sex worker?’ they say no.”
Tony Lisle, the country coordinator for UNAIDS in Cambodia, said crackdowns that “prevent access to services for HIV prevention and other supports” could “only exacerbate already existing challenges that partners have in reaching both women and their clients”.
“The point of view of UNAIDS is that we must ensure that those who are at most risk for HIV infections are and should be able to access HIV-prevention services. We do not want to see new infections,” said Lisle, who noted that his organisation does not yet have definitive information on the reported crackdowns.
In a speech earlier this month, right as the new round of crackdowns was getting under way, Prime Minister Hun Sen lashed out at officials who he said had undermined efforts to target “human trafficking”.
Bith Kimhong said Monday the goal of the speech had been “to encourage and motivate us to continue working”.
Yet advocates do not see prostitution and human trafficking as inextricably linked.
In a 2009 study of more than 1,100 sex workers by the Cambodian Alliance for Combating HIV/AIDS (CACHA), most female sex workers interviewed said they had entered the trade voluntarily. The study suggested a maximum of just over 7 percent were trafficked.
Chris Jones, the country manager for health NGO PSI, said periodic crackdowns on prostitution aren’t unusual, particularly in the last two years, where police actions have seen a rise in the number of women working in the indirect sex trade – away from defined brothels to informal settings such as beer gardens, massage parlours and karaoke bars.
What remains to be seen is whether the current focus is temporary, or part of a longer-term surge provoked by the premier’s recent warning.
“We’ve seen these sporadic crackdowns in the past. The question now is whether it’s going to be more sustained because the prime minister made the comments directly,” Jones said. “If it is a more concerted effort, the likelihood is more women will be driven underground or into places that are harder to reach.”