Sporting a new clip-on nose ring Thursday, Vann Sokni was one of four Cambodian sex workers just back from a four-day conference in Calcutta, India, which addressed, above all, empowerment of one of the region’s least powerful groups: prostitutes.
“The women [prostitutes] of India are very strong,” she said, returning to Phnom Penh in time for International Women’s Day celebrations near Wat Botum. “Cambodian women need to be like that.”
In India, women are forming unions to match those already established by brothel owners and pimps. And like workers throughout the region, they have a good reason to want to protect themselves.
Without empowerment from their peers, sex workers are more likely to fall victim to abusive clients or swindling brothel owners, said Meas Chantan, head of the Urban Sector Group, which organizes networks between brothel workers and encourages meetings.
About 5,000 women attended the workshop in Calcutta. In India, sex work is heavily unionized, though many of those unions are for pimps and brothel owners, said Nith Sopha of the NGO FHI/Impact, who headed the delegation from Cambodia.
Phnom Penh has one small sex workers’ union, and other workers are starting to organize, establishing informal groups of sex workers such as the one to which Sokni belongs.
“Now the sex workers want to establish an association,” Nith Sopha said.
Although sex workers suffer some of the worst abuses faced by women, all women in Cambodia face a number of issues as the country struggles to develop.
“Women have played a huge role in building development in this country,” said Michael Bird, head of Oxfam Great Britain, which sponsored the festival. “Women are too often excluded from decision-making processes about themselves and their choices, and too often women are the victims of violence.”
Though the celebrations were meant to highlight those problems, they did not dwell on them. For many, a day off was cause for celebration, especially for women like Noeun, a brothel worker from Kompong Chhnang.
For her, this would likely be the only day off she’d have in a while. She sat on a straw mat inside the booth of the Cambodian Women for Peace and Development Association, applying eye glitter and joking with her peers.
“The brothel owner allowed us to come for a happy day and to meet women from other areas,” she said before going back to her friends.
“Maybe at work, she is not so happy,” said Association head Chou Bun Eng, “so today she needs happiness.”