Srey Pov claims to have been raped, beaten and robbed by both customers and police during her four years selling sex in the park next to Independence Monument. But despite the risks of her profession, the 23-year-old said she still refuses to seek refuge in one of the capital’s various NGO shelters.
Though she has never been to one, Srey Pov said last month that she believes life in a shelter would be worse than her life on the streets.
She added that she would not be able to make money inside a shelter and believes that NGO workers lock women inside.
“NGOs harass us and look down on us like we are trash. NGOs tell me to go to the shelter, to learn how to do nails or style hair, but you can’t make money that way. My family needs money,” she said, adding that as a sex worker, she is able to send $30 a month to her relatives in Kompong Cham province.
A 27-year-old sex worker who gave her name as Sally held back tears and nodded in agreement.
“We have problems with pimps, customers, police, NGOs,” she said.
“If you ask a customer to wear a condom, they hit you hard. Sometimes customers hire one girl and make her sleep with 20 guys. Police have raped me in the grass and on the riverbank. They beat us…. Sometimes they pistol whip us because they want money or sex.”
“But NGOs should stop asking me to change jobs,” she continued. “This is what my life is like, and it’s necessary to make money. I used to be a construction worker, making $2 a day. In one day as a prostitute, you can make $5 to $6.”
For sex workers like Srey Pov and Sally, the inability to make money inside a shelter and a loss of freedom—real or perceived—are the biggest reasons to avoid the NGOs that have been set up to help them.
A January study by the NGO Violence Against Women and Children in Cambodia identified other reasons as well.
Some sex workers complained of missing their friends and wealthy customers. Others in the report, like a woman who identified herself as Socheat, said her quality of life had decreased inside a shelter, which was not identified.
“I wanted to escape but the door was closed and someone was watching. I was kept there for three days and my boss came to help me,” she said.
“When I am staying with my boss, he always provides me with nice meals. But the meals at the shelter were not delicious, rather terrible. Staff at the shelter were trying to educate me and change me to be a good girl. I hate that. I cannot stay in such a strange place,” she was quoted as saying.
NGOs face a public relations crisis with the sex workers they aim to help, said Nakagawa Kasumi, a project manager at the Cambodian Defenders Project who worked on the report. She said NGOs must change their approach to sex workers and tailor programs to suit their needs.
How to do so is a point of debate.
Support is strong for getting underage prostitutes off the streets. But opinion is divided over how to help women who choose to sell sex.
Some NGO workers say refusing NGO help and training leaves prostitutes in the path of routine abuse and physical and mental illness.
“We are the only people who can protect them right now and offer them hope. We don’t believe prostitution is a legitimate form of work,” said Aarti Kapoor, director of Afesip International, which was involved in a December 2004 raid to remove 83 women and girls from the Chai Hour II Hotel and place them in an Afesip shelter.
A day after the raid, a group of men forced the gate of the shelter open and the females fled.
Witnesses said that some of the women and girls were also pushing the gate from inside the shelter, apparently unhappy with their detention, and that when it was broken open, some fled the scene on motorbike taxis, while others were driven away in sport utility vehicles.
Kapoor said all who come to Afesip are allowed to leave, and that those who do leave are allowed to return.
“They think their life is finished. They cannot think further than today,” Kapoor said. “But of course if they don’t want to stay with us, we take them home…. At the end of the day, it’s their choice.”
Kapoor blamed the prostitutes’ fears of NGO shelter on rumors spread by police, who she said extort money from prostitutes by threatening to take them to shelters.
“By the time they get to us, they’ve been brainwashed by the police,” she said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he had never heard complaints of police officers abusing, assaulting, robbing or brainwashing prostitutes.
He urged sex workers to file complaints to the ministry and said any police officer found guilty would be punished.
At an Afesip shelter in Tuol Kok district last month, one of the organization’s four shelters in Cambodia, women staying there said that sex workers had nothing to fear from NGOs.
A 20-year-old woman from Takeo province, who declined to give her name, has been in and out of Afesip shelters over the last two years. She said women and girls must notify NGO officials before leaving, adding that she did not believe that women were free to come and go as they please.
Although monitors watch the women and tell them not to leave, she said security is so loose that she has been able to slip away three times.
“The first time, I just walked out of the training center. I waited until no one was watching and I left,” she said, adding that each time she fled, she returned to selling sex.
This time, however, she plans to stay the course, she said, adding that she has entered the shelter each time of her own volition.
“I promised myself, this is the last time. I will get training for myself, and I am hopeful that I can become a good person,” she said.
Several women at a shelter run by the Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center said they were happy to be there. The women, mostly victims of rape and domestic violence, said they understood the concerns of some sex workers about entering shelters but said they were unfounded.
The CWCC, which runs three shelters in Cambodia, is almost always crowded, sometimes to the point that officials have to turn people away, said CWCC Executive Director Chanthol Oung.
“Of course sex workers don’t trust us the first time we talk with them,” she said. She added that women are free to leave, noting that the shelter’s single guard, who doubles as a driver, never locks the compound gate.
Others, however, say shelters are not the way to help women out of prostitution.
“We are attacking the problem from the wrong end,” said legal analyst Lao Mong Hay. “We need to teach our men to restrain their sexual appetite.”
He said a government campaign could be used to shift the stigma of prostitution from sex workers to the men who visit them.
“Brothels are called ‘the place of bad women.’ But we should rename it to ‘the place of bad men,’” he said.
Former minister of women’s affairs and Sam Rainsy Party member Mu Sochua also said that shelters are not what sex workers really need.
“They need 24-hour services. They need services for their children,” she said.
“They don’t want to depend on NGOs for skills training,” Mu Sochua said. “They want to walk in and they want to walk out of those places.”
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the legal aid Cambodian Defenders Project, agreed that services for sex workers fall short, but said they are in theory protected by law.
“Prostitution is not criminalized, In fact, according to the current law, police cannot arrest prostitutes,” he said. “Sex workers are afraid of shelters, so I ask all NGOs to please review your organization and shelter to find out why.”
In the park next to Independence Monument, Srey Pov and Sally chatted with their fellow sex workers and waited for their next customers as the hours went by.
By about midnight, Srey Pov said that when NGO workers visit her and the others in the park, she sometimes secretly wishes she could leave with them.
“I know [the NGOs have] a good point of view, but my family needs the money” she said, adding that her parents believe she has a job at a factory.
“Whenever I see people from my province I hide my face,” she added.
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong)