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TRACEY SHELTON Sex workers wait for customers at a karaoke bar in Toul Kork, Phnom Penh, prior to a nationwide crackdown on brothels this year that has driven prostitutes from organized establishments onto the streets.
But advocates say that new legislation enacted in February to curb trafficking and sexual exploitation has really only given authorities a license to rape and rob – evidenced by the spiraling number of reported abuse cases at the hands of police rousting former brothel workers from their perches in parks and on street sides.
“What is happening is that the police are confiscating property – chairs, tables – from outside karaoke bars, they’re taking everyone’s jewelry,” said one source who did not want to be named but who has repeatedly visited public places where prostitutes gathered to monitor the nightly raids by the authorities.
Worse still, allegations and first-hand accounts are piling up that prostitutes are being arrested and some raped before being forced to pay money in exchange for their release, the source said.
At the heart of the problem, advocates say, is a flawed law that equates all commercial sex work with human trafficking, what Cheryl Overs of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) calls a “conflation of prostitution and trafficking.” “It assumes that sex work is inherently degrading and therefore that you cannot consent to it – like you can’t consent to slavery – so all sex workers become victims of trafficking,” she told the Post.
Critics of Cambodia’s “Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” said it is so broad and open to interpretation by authorities that even those unwittingly associating with sex workers can be arrested for trafficking.
“The Cambodian government itself mirrors that lack of cohesion at the UN level.” One Cambodian institution that is fully behind the new legislation is the police, according to the force’s head of anti-trafficking, Bith Kim Hong, who dismissed concerns over the law’s impact on the control of HIV/Aids.
“NGOs that work with HIV/Aids think differently from the police,” he told the Post on May 13.
“Stopping [brothels] from existing is better than having brothels …
when there are no brothels HIV/Aids cannot spread to other people,” he added.
For example, a mototaxi driver carrying a prostitute to work or a bar owner whose establishment is being used as a rendezvous could theoretically be prosecuted and risk having their property seized.
Offering one’s sexual services for money is now also illegal for the first time, whereas in the past only pimping and procurement could be prosecuted.
This zero-sum approach, with its arrests and mass brothel closures, also does little more than drive prostitutes deeper underground – more vulnerable to trafficking and further away from the legion of public health groups who have been instrumental in curbing Cambodia’s HIV/Aids epidemic.