NGOs Urge Government to Legalize Sex Industry

A top anti-human trafficking official said on Thursday that she was in discussion with NGOs that have been urging the government to legalize sex work, though she doubted much would come of the proposal.

Chou Bun Eng, secretary-general of the Interior Ministry’s committee to fight human trafficking and sexual exploitation, said she had recently met with representatives of NGOs lobbying the government to decriminalize independent sex work and introduce regulations protecting the rights of sex workers.

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Pen Kunthea, a former sex worker who drowned in the Tonle Sap river after being chased by Daun Penh district security guards recently.

“I have been in discussion with a group of nongovernmental organizations who want to legalize sex work,” she said.

Currently, a commune safety policy issued by the Interior Ministry in 2010 instructs authorities, officials, NGOs and citizens to “take action to eliminate any prostitutes,” a broad policy that has been criticized by NGOs that say it has forced sex workers underground, where they are exposed to exploitation, violence and a higher risk of HIV infection.

Ms. Bun Eng said she was doubtful the government would agree to the requests to modify the policy.

“It will go against Cambodian tradition and we can’t anticipate what the result will be. It would increase human trafficking.”

A report issued by the National Police Thursday’says anti-human trafficking police are acting on an increasing number of sexual exploitation cases, a trend Ms. Bun Eng attributed to a growing entertainment industry.

“There are more sexual exploitation cases happening because there is an increasing number of entertainment businesses,” she said, referring to karaoke parlors and clubs, many of which are considered hubs for surreptitious prostitution.

Keo Tha, secretary-general of the Women’s Network for Unity, which is run primarily by current and former sex workers, said well-defined regulations would help protect sex workers from regular harassment.

Ms. Tha said the death of sex worker Pen Kunthea, 33, who drowned in the Tonle Sap river while reportedly being chased by Daun Penh district security guards attempting to round up a group of sex workers was an example of why greater protections were needed.

“We don’t have the funds to lobby the government about our issues, but if the government decided to make [sex work] more like a work sector, then they would not be chased anymore,” she said.

Sou Sochenda, a manager at NGO Khana, which supports drug treatment and HIV prevention programs, said she supported the call for regulations that would better protect the rights of sex workers and improve their access to basic health care services.

(Additional reporting by Sonia Kohlbacher)

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