Sex workers rallied Wednesday in Phnom Penh to condemn a new law that they say is hurting them and their chosen profession.
“The closure of brothel parlors and the arrest of sex workers are not acceptable because it strongly affects our rights, especially because we have suffered repeated violence in the process from police and social affairs center guards,” said Chan Dina, a leader of the Cambodia Prostitutes Union, which represents about 300 sex workers.
Most of the estimated 500 sex workers who gathered Wednesday at the offices of the Women’s Network for Unity, which is located on a boat on the Tonle Sap river, wore bright red T-shirts that read “Sex Work is Work. Defend the Right to Livelihood.” Others carried signs with messages such as “Our Families Rely on Our Professions.”
Video testimony of alleged victims were shown at the rally, while songs and skits were put on for the event.
At issue is the law on “Com-bating Human Trafficking and Sexual Trade” that came into effect Feb 15 and that critics claim has resulted in brothel closures, violent abuse of and theft from sex workers, and the “collapse” of their HIV prevention and healthcare programs.
Sou Southeavy, president of the Cambodian Men, Women Network for Development, said her organization has recorded the closure of about 100 karaoke parlors, brothels and beer gardens since the beginning of this year, and about 100 sex workers who have been arrested and brought to jail or “re-education” centers.
The WNU reports that about 200 brothels and karaoke parlors have been shut down in the capital and throughout Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey, Kompong Chhnang and Kompong Speu provinces, WNU secretariat Keo Tha said.
One 27-year-old sex worker who attended the rally said she was raped regularly while detained for three months in the Ministry of Social Affairs center in Prek Speu commune of Kandal province’s Koh Thom district. “I fear being arrested and locked in the center again,” said the woman who would not give her name.
Some government officials who attended the rally expressed sympathies for the sex workers in
“I am really glad to be here, and definitely shocked because I have never heard that our women have been suffering a lot of bitter experiences from our law on suppression of human trafficking and sexual exploitation,” said Chou Bun Eng, director-general for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ General Department of Social Development.
“I encourage women who have suffered such violence and abuse to file a formal complaint against abusers and violence users,” she told the crowd.
Bith Kimhong, director of the Ministry of Interior’s Anti-Human Trafficking Department, by telephone Wednesday that he could neither confirm nor deny the allegations of serious abuse as they have never showed any proof.
“Those women’s unions just shout out over.violence, but do not file or send formal complaints to us,” he said.
Minister of Social Affairs Ith Sam Heng, whose ministry oversees the detention centers where some of the alleged abuse takes place, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.