Health Groups and Sex Workers Criticize Anti-Trafficking Law

Cambodian sex workers and rights groups attending a regional sex trade health conference over the weekend criticized the anti-human trafficking statute adopted here in 2007, saying it made it harder to get health care and social services, participants said yesterday.

The sex workers attending the conference, held in Thailand and organized by UNAIDS, said the threat of prosecution prevented them from seeking out testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, according to Women’s Network for Unity Coordinator Keo Tha, who helped bring the workers to the meeting.

“We know from research and stories that arresting prostitutes forces sex workers into hiding, which is harmful to their health because it keeps them from reaching out for support and to health workers,” said Ms Tha. “The law should be reviewed and changed.”

The 2007 law mandated the closure of brothels and provides for a maximum of six days in jail for adult prostitutes. Ms Tha said yesterday that revising the law would help speed the “diagnosis and delivery of the necessary medicine being received by HIV-positive prostitutes.”

National Aids Authority Deputy Director Tia Phalla acknowledged yesterday that the law had made the government’s goal of 100-percent condom use among sex workers “more difficult to push,” but said rights advocates at the meeting were too eager to disparage government intervention.

“We don’t do medical check-ups for our own gratification,” said Mr Phalla. “You need seatbelts and red lights to make driving safe and we don’t want to have no government control of health services.”

The NAA is hoping to institute a system of quarterly scheduled check-ups for sex workers but will not make STD testing mandatory, said Mr Phalla, adding that funding for social services for sex workers dipped in 2008 and 2009 but was increasing again.

UNAIDS Cambodia Coordinator Tony Lisle said yesterday that revising the law could help protect sex workers but that cooperation between the government and businesses where sex is sold could mitigate the law’s negative effects in the short term.

“We are organizing community groups pairing local police with entertainment establishment owners to halt harassment and rape by officials,” said Mr Lisle. “This is going to be a major initiative through next year.”


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