The crackdown on sex work under Cambodia’s anti-trafficking regime has forced the industry further underground and deteriorated the rights of women and men working in the sector across the country, Flinders University researcher Dr Larissa Sandy says.
As part of her three-year Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, Dr Sandy has documented the experiences of dozens of sex workers following the Cambodian Government’s Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation.
Introduced in 2008 after years of pressure from the US and UK to regulate Cambodia’s sex industry, the legislation prohibits human trafficking, managing prostitutes and maintaining a brothel, as well as soliciting in public and distributing pornography.
Since 2008 authorities have all but shutdown every brothel in the country and made hundreds of arrests, yet Dr Sandy said the law has effectively worsened the exploitation of sex workers – a conclusion she has drawn from more than 75 in-depth interviews with sex workers, union members, outreach workers and non-government organisations in Cambodia in 2013.
“On the one hand the law considers a sex worker to be a victim of human trafficking but by criminalising the industry is it also deems sex workers to be criminals, which has pushed the industry even further underground and led to the virtual collapse of HIV prevention measures,” Dr Sandy, based in Flinders Law School, said.
“Almost all of the brothel workers now work on the streets, causing them to suffer terrible consequences,” she said.
“Not only are they subject to more police harassment, they are putting themselves at risk of sexually-transmitted diseases because a lot of sex workers have stopped carrying protection and seeking health services for fear it will be used as evidence against them.”
Dr Sandy said the majority of sex workers who are arrested are sent to rehabilitation centres where they are virtually “locked-up in sub-humane conditions” and routinely abused.
“The legislation itself doesn’t spell out what constitutes rehabilitation, it just says you have to go, which has led to a situation where women and men are locked-up for up to six months but not given any training, skills or subsidies to go on to an economic alternative.
“Meanwhile their families, who relied on that income to put food on the table, are forced into debt, which is a Catch-22 because the sex workers have to work doubly hard when they get out to wipe the debt.”
Dr Sandy said the law focuses exclusively on anti-prostitution measures, with two-thirds of the legislation, and almost all arrests and convictions to date, related to prostitution offences, as opposed to combating the bigger problem of trafficking in other labour sectors.
“Most Cambodians who are trafficked end up in sweat shops, construction sites, fishing trawlers, domestic service and forced marriages so that’s where the real focus should be.
“A lot of the women and men who choose this work are not trafficked, nor do they necessarily want to exit the industry. They want to work and work safely, free from police harassment and client violence, so the legislation really needs to be much more nuanced and multi-pronged.”
She said the sex industry plays a major social and cultural function in South-East Asia, therefore any attempt to regulate the industry requires a fundamental shift in societal attitudes.
“In South-East Asia the sex industry is a very much an accepted part of everyday life – men freely went to brothels but now they go to karaoke bars and massage parlours with their friends as a form of socialisation, yet it’s not the men who face condemnation, it’s the women.
“Considering the sex industry is such a big part of the social fabric in Cambodia, any attempts to control the industry won’t be successful without also attempting to change gender and cultural norms.”