A nationwide increase in brothel closures and sex worker arrests in recent months has public health workers crying foul.
Based on data collected by Population Services International, an NGO that has been working in Cambodia’s public health sector since 1993, 381 brothels have been closed down nationwide in the last five or six months.
Among the brothels closed, 121 have been shut in Phnom Penh, 52 in Banteay Meanchey province, and 42 in Battambang province and Pailin municipality collectively, PSI country representative Chris Jones said.
“To lend perspective to the crackdown,” he said, “there are now only 36 or 37 brothels left in Phnom Penh.”
Jones declined to comment on what he believes is behind the closures, but expressed concern over its “profound impact on public health.”
Condom use in brothels is extremely high at 99 percent, he said, but in the case of transactional sex outside brothels-such as in karaoke parlors or on the street-condom use drops dramatically.
According to the latest government survey, the condom use rate for transactional sex outside brothels is only 88 percent, he said.
“If we take sex workers out of brothels and if you put women in more vulnerable situations without support mechanisms…[we] see condom use go down and the fear is that HIV prevalence begins to rise,” he said.
Another NGO, Family Health International, has recorded brothel closings over the last three months in Phnom Penh-mostly in Russei Keo and Tuol Kok districts-and several provinces where it works with sex workers via various NGOs.
In Phnom Penh, FHI has recorded the arrests of five brothel owners and 48 brothel closings affecting 255 sex workers, most of whom, the NGO says, have been arrested and kept in detention for a couple of days or until a family member or brothel owner bails them out for what usually amounts to between $40 and $80.
In Kompong Cham and Banteay Meanchey, where 20 brothels and 33 brothels were closed respectively, many of the more than 250 sex workers affected have apparently transitioned to working in karaoke bars, massage parlors and beer gardens, while others have simply disappeared, according to FHI.
Caroline Francis, FHI associate director, said Wednesday that the crackdown is part of a trafficking suppression campaign begun roughly six months ago that has “tremendous public health implications.”
“It is quite catastrophic for the women we work with,” she said.
The new crackdown will “force women underground and we won’t be able to access them for health education and services. We will have difficulty knowing where they are, and they will be nervous to work with us for fear they will be arrested,” she said.
The Women’s Network for Unity, an NGO that works with more than 5,000 sex workers in 14 provinces, has taken issue with the crackdown itself, claiming that 80 percent of sex workers have voluntarily chosen their line of business and should not be criminalized for doing so.
Leng Nayheng, an assistant at the WNU secretariat, criticized the new anti-trafficking law – article 24 of which punishes anyone who publicly solicits sex with up to 6 days in jail and a fine of $2.50-saying that it is being used to justify the persecution of sex workers.
“The law seems to violate human rights and give power only to police to arrest sex workers,” he said, adding that if sex workers are scared to come forward for fear of being arrested, there will likely be a rise in unreported trafficking instances.
“There will be more human trafficking…. Sex workers used to report when a person was being trafficked, but now they will be scared,” he said.
Leng Nayheng pointed to the US’ Trafficking in Persons Report, on which government officials have said they are hoping Cambodia will be upgraded from the tier two watch list to level two in June, as a motivating factor behind the crackdown.
Director of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department, Bith Kimhong, said Wednesday that there has been a concerted effort to crack down on brothels over the last few months, but he said it was nothing new and that he did not have any exact figures.
“It is our work to close down all brothels,” he said.
He denied that the effort was driven by US government anti-trafficking priorities and also said that sex workers are not arrested, but merely sent for “re-education.”
“No one was arrested. We just educated them,” he said.
WNU also claimed that arrested sex workers are being abused at centers, like Kompong Speu province’s Prey Speu center, where they are being sent for “re-education” following police detention in the most recent crackdown.
“They were raped and beaten by the guards,” Leng Nayheng alleged, adding that they are not even given utensils with which to eat their food. “They are treated like animals,” he said.
Women’s Affairs Ministry Secretary of State You Ay, who also heads the government’s anti-trafficking task force, asked to see clear evidence from WNU about the abuses experienced by sex workers and encouraged them to file official complaints.
“I heard sex workers were raped and their belongings taken…. I want clear reports about the abuses,” she said, adding that the crackdown is unrelated to the forthcoming national election in July.
“It is not because of the upcoming election. It is because of the new anti-trafficking law, which is encouraging us to work harder,” she said, adding that the TIP report is also “a reason for us to try our best.”
Regarding public health concerns over removing sex workers from the brothels where they receive HIV/AIDS outreach, You Ay said she has just become aware of these concerns and is hoping to discuss the matter further with relevant officials.
“We will raise this in a meeting and report what is the problem,” she said, claiming that sex workers are victims, and that brothels need to be suppressed.
Marielle Lindstrom, the Asia Foundation’s technical adviser to the anti-trafficking task force, said Wednesday that the new law is a forward-thinking tool intended to prevent sex workers from being exploited by the people making a profit off their services in brothels.
“Technically, brothels are illegal…and anyone involved in the selling of sex is committing a crime,” she said, adding that reports of abuse are extremely worrying and need to be looked into further.
With the crackdown on brothels, she said, new ways of locating and reaching out to sex workers need to be found in the public health sector.
Lindstrom said that the US has given $4.5 million over a period of three years to counter trafficking activities, of which the national task force is one beneficiary.
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle pointed out that the US has also “provided approximately $18 million in this fiscal year alone for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs in Cambodia.”
Daigle also said that brothels are illegal under Cambodian law, and that the US is in favor of Cambodia’s effort to enforce its own laws.
“While we do not believe that all sex workers are victims of trafficking, there is no question that prostitution and related activities, which are inherently harmful and dehumanizing, contribute to the phenomenon of trafficking in persons,” he wrote by e-mail Wednesday afternoon.