Condom Project Underpinned By Support of Cops, Brothels

Thanh, a brothel owner in Phnom Penh’s red-light district in Tuol Kok, is more afraid of his employees contracting AIDS than of drunk or armed patrons who don’t want to wear condoms.

“In my brothel, men have to use condoms while having sex,” said Thanh. “If not, they will be kicked out.”

One of the prostitutes in the small brick brothel then interrupted the interview to tell Thanh that their condoms had been used up. He excused himself, walked next door, and returned minutes later with a box of about 100.

Contented, the six prostitutes sat down to count their condoms and wait for more clients to arrive.

Attitudes like Thanh’s will be crucial to the success of a Na­tional AIDS Program pilot campaign requiring condoms to be worn by all brothel patrons, said police, AIDS act­ivists and government officials.

Sihanoukville was selected for the pilot in part because brothel owners and police have pledged to cooperate to enforce it—a crucial switch in the tactical battle against AIDS, officials say.

Sihanoukville’s first deputy governor, Khim Bo, last week signed a citywide ordinance requiring men to wear condoms when having sex with prostitutes.

If the program is successful and used nationwide, acti­vists believe hundreds of thousands of HIV cases can be prevented.

Cambodia’s HIV transmission rate is Asia’s fastest-rising, with 20,000 sex workers serving as the prime transmitters, officials say.

“Forget about what is right or wrong legally, but as long as you’re going to have people buying and selling this property, it should be safe,” said Pawana Wienrawee, a Thai technical ad­viser to UNAIDS in Cambodia.

The police role in the campaign in Sihanoukville will be to “mediate” disputes between men who refuse to wear condoms and brothel owners who insist they do, Sihanoukville Police Chief Em Bunsath said Tuesday.

“This is a good tactic,” he said, “because we cannot completely crack down on brothels.”

Thailand’s Dr Wiwat Rojan­a­pithayakorn, the chief technical adviser to the pilot program, on Wednesday noted that most countries fail in their attempts to wipe out brothels.

That’s in part because brothels in most countries receive police protection, Wiwat said.

Seang, 25, who blames a friend’s death on an AIDS-related illness contracted from a prostitute, said fear of AIDS will not deter him from having frequent sex with prostitutes.

“But I use a ‘raincoat’ to protect ‘it,’” he said Tuesday night, leaning against the doorway of a Phnom Penh brothel and teasing the girls over how much he would pay them for sex.

Most of the 11 men interviewed in Phnom Penh—where condom usage with sex workers is estimated at above 80 percent—said they support the condom-use campaign.

“For me I never miss using my nice friend [condom] when I have sex,” said Ith Phea, a 35-year-old cyclo driver, in an interview in a Stung Meanchey district brothel. “If I am not using it I can catch a disease.”

Dr Tia Phalla, the National AIDS Program director, cautioned Wednesday that while condom usage is high in the city, nationwide condom use with sex workers is about 40 percent.

Pawana, the UNAIDS adviser, and Wiwat credit the Thai condom-use drive, begun as a pilot in 1989 and adopted nationwide in 1991, with helping curb that country’s HIV transmission rate.

Thailand faced the problem of convincing brothel owners that the condom-use ordinance would help, not hurt, their business, Pa­wana said Wednesday.

“The message, at least in Thai­land…was if you go and get an STD [sexually transmitted disease], it ruins the reputation of the brothels,” Pawana said. “For the girls, they lose a working day because they have to go for treatment. By having reinforced condom use, [brothel owners] gain by not having many sick days for their employees.

“This is how we have to ap­proach it by laying all these issues on the table,” she continued. “For them, the only concern they have is that they’re making money. That’s the trick of this program.”

(Additional reporting by Lor Chan­dara)


Related Stories

Latest News