Soon the day laborers on Sihanoukville’s docks will be getting off work. And the hired hands who work for wealthier boat owners are waking up from a day’s sleep and will have a few hours to kill before they shove off for a night of fishing.
Since many of these transient men spend their spare time and money in area brothels, prostitutes nearby are primping for another night. That national elections are looming is far from their minds.
The women in this Tumnop Ralok commune brothel district say that no parties have campaigned directly to them and that no overtures have been made for their votes. Only occasionally does a truck blaring a party platform from its loudspeaker drive by.
“The CPP and Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party have come here and broadcast. They all say they will do a better job for us. They promise me a better job, but it never happens, whatever party wins I will still be a prostitute,” said Lida as she dug through a plastic makeup bin for the right shade.
Like many of Cambodia’s sex workers, Lida works away from her home province. She says that in 2002 she voted and attended political rallies at her home in Kampot, but that she will do neither in Sihanoukville.
“At home no one knows I am a prostitute.” she said. “Anyway, I just don’t trust any party. They promise to find me a job, but they forget it and I will remain a prostitute forever.”
Nearby, Kunthea (whose name has been changed), is also putting her face on. “I have never been involved in politics or political campaigns. They never invite us to join any party activities or campaigns. People will recognize us as prostitutes and discriminate against us,” she said.
“I feel so ashamed,” Phon (also an alias) chimed in, “I would like to be invited to participate in rallies, but I feel ashamed to go because I am a sex worker, and they will discriminate against me. If I go to the rally, I am afraid that the young boys or my clients that sleep with me will recognize me and say, ‘She is a prostitute.’”
Phon’s stance on the election: “If I vote, nothing will change, so I am not going to vote, I am bored with the whole process.”
That comment raised the ire of the brothel owner, who shouted from the shower room where she was making herself over, “No! It is your choice to vote, you have a choice, and you should have a party you like, you should not say [things] like this.”
The office of the Cambodian Prostitutes Union—one of two sex worker unions in the capital’s Tuol Kok district—sits amid a slew of dilapidated wooden brothels on stilts. Its coordinator, Keo Sicham, is also appealing to sex workers to vote, but without much luck.
“I push them to register but very few have and very few have the willingness to vote,” said Keo Sicham, who sat amid signs that read “Sex Work is Work” and “You Have Rights.”
In front of the office hangs a Sam Rainsy Party sign indicating the entrance to a nearby party office. Keo Sicham wants the sign taken down because people often mistake her offices for the party’s offices, walking in to find wooden phalluses, boxes of condoms and literature on safe sex, rather than party fliers and political activists.
She says there is no discussion of sex workers’ rights in any of the political platforms.
“The three main parties have policies against sexual exploitation and human trafficking, but they don’t say that they will protect the sex workers. Maybe they think people will stop supporting the party if the party is supporting the sex workers. Maybe it is some kind of discrimination. Politicians think that the brothel is a small amount of their vote, so they don’t care very much,” she said.
“Nobody has told sex workers about their rights to vote, so nobody learned about it. They think they are doing illegal business, they think they are outside the law, so they don’t get involved with politics,” said Keo Sicham.
At another Sihanoukville brothel, owner Rich Som railed against legal authorities.
“I’m poor, nobody likes me, nobody supports me. I have to do this terrible business,” said the mother of eight. “I have to pay bribes of $20 per month to the police, the military police, the commune officials and sometimes human rights officials. It is like a salary [for them].”
Rich Som says that if some of her employees walk too far outside the house they can be kidnapped and kept for a ransom.
“I am very angry and I don’t want to vote,” she said.
Earlier she had been screaming, but when talking about the abductions for ransom she speaks in hushed tones. She says all she wants from the next government is the right to do her work, free of being extorted and an end to the kidnappings of her women.
Dary, 23, one of Rich Som’s employees, also has not registered to vote. She says she registered and voted in 1998 in her home province of Kompong Cham, but won’t vote this year.
“I didn’t hear about the registration campaign. I sleep all day long and I am busy at night. I have no time to register. I’d like to vote, but I can’t be bothered. [Anyway], whoever wins, nothing will change for me, the parties always change, but it is always the same. I cannot get away from sex work,” Dary said.
That sex workers are a mobile work force is the major hindrance to their voting, not that they are marginalized said Chea Vannath, director of the Center for Social Development. It is the same with many motorcycle taxi drivers and day laborers, she said.
“It is for practical reasons they don’t vote. Wherever you register, you have to go back there to vote, and they don’t have the money to go back and forth,” she said, adding that in the last two national elections voters could vote in provinces different from than the ones they registered in.
A few meters from the Tuol Kok CPU office, 19-year-old Tren from Kompong Cham said that she does not have the proper identity records to have applied for a voter registration card. She said that she does not want to vote for any party because all they do is fight among each other. She wouldn’t elaborate, preferring to cat-call male passers-by.
But while Keo Sicham agrees that mobility is a factor, she still points to their line of work as a major hindrance. Their situation is different from the garment workers who have been given time off to go to their home provinces to vote, she said, “so the women’s vote is lost.”
Unlike the bulk of the sex workers in Tuol Kok and Sihanoukville, the prostitutes in the rural Stung Veng commune of Koh Kong province all say they will vote.
Registration for sex workers here couldn’t have been simpler because nestled among eight brothels on their dusty street is the office of the commune election committee, itself a former brothel, where election-related materials hang alongside advertisements for safe sex and No One condoms.
“It was easy to register. The polling station is right there,” one worker said, pointing over her right shoulder. Though she is from Kratie, she has registered in Stung Veng.
So have all the girls, she said. “The [CPP] commune council member went door to door and asked all the girls to register.”
She herself has attended some CPP rallies, the worker said.
The owner of that brothel, who declined to be named, said that her constituency wants honest leaders who take care of the people and are not corrupt.
When asked what kind of problems she might want solved in Stung Veng she replied, “there is no problem here.”
No one interviewed in this village said that they wanted to change the government, and a few of the women and their madams said they had attended CPP rallies.
Mei, 24, from Kratie, and Vy, 23, from Koh Kong, both said that they were told to register by their brothel’s owner, a CPP supporter.
“We do not know about the voting or what we can receive from the voting,” said Vy.
“I don’t know about voting because I have never voted before, I do not know what it means. I was told to vote; I will get someone who has voted before to tell me how to vote. I love all parties and if we had the chance I would vote for all of them,” added Mei, who said she could not read the party platforms because she is illiterate.
Unlike in Stung Veng, not many sex workers in Cham Yeam commune, a dirt path with seven brothels adjacent to the border with Thailand, will be voting. Most of the sex workers there are Vietnamese, in Cambodia illegally.
But Keo Sicham said that many of the Vietnamese sex workers that her union represents are more politically astute. She acknowledges that a large portion of the Vietnamese sex workers are ineligible to vote, but “the ones who have been here more than 10 years and can speak Khmer and can get the voter registration cards have become more active with the election because they want to stay here and live in Cambodia longer.”
Still, Keo Sicham said that, regrettably, most sex workers are not interested in the election at all. “They are not concerned about political issues, they do not know their rights to vote, and are just concerned with their empty stomachs.”