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Rights and Freedom: From Street to Rehabilitation Centre

A sex worker lying on her side on a bed in a run-down room, smoking.

Sex workers are perceived by society as demeaning the value and dignity of women, as victims of human trafficking, transmitters of infectious diseases, women with no agency, and as sex slaves. Put simply, sex workers are viewed as bad people, particularly, bad women.  The view is very much from a patriarchal and moral framework in which women’s roles are assigned and constructed, despite the fact that different gender identities, including male and transsexual, engage in sex work.

The fight for an end to discrimination and violence against sex workers in Cambodia, as in many other parts of the world, has a long way to go. The Women’s Network for Unity (WNU) has proactively advocated for the recognition of the right to sex work as a livelihood for almost two decades but progress has been difficult.  The hardest part is to challenge and transform narrow-minded views towards women and sex workers.  It is these views that influence and impact policy, legal and programme frameworks which continue to oppress and criminalise women.

WNU’s members asked for a review and amendment of the 2008 Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation since this law criminalises sex work. This includes the prohibition of soliciting sex in public, setting up and maintaining establishments (for sex work), providing assistance for sexual services, and procurement from sex work. In our critiques, research and experience, it is evident that the consequences of this law on sex workers, especially women, is devastating and leads to further exploitation. The law fails to address the issue of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Evidence-based documentary films, posters and reports were made criticising the negative impact of the law and the Raid and Rescue for Rehabilitation programme (3Rs) on female and transgender sex workers. In retaliation some law enforcement officers imposed crackdowns, raids and detention of sex workers rather than attempting to tackle the actual problems. These problems include poor education, narrowing opportunities for work and livelihoods, and the low status of women.

Sex workers want their voices heard. This documentary is a collaboration between the 6400-member Women’s Network for Unity (WNU) Cambodia and NGO Filmmaker Paula Stromberg.

WNU’s frustration intensifies, particularly since the solution is logical. How is it possible that both the government, international and local NGOs have mandates that advocate women’s rights and ending gender-based violence, but such abuses against us (sex workers) occur on a daily basis? The concern for women who use their body, i.e. their vagina to raise money is of little importance to the world of human rights advocates. This leaves us wondering, are we not women? Are we not poor? Are we not migrants? Are we not women victims of violence? Why are we invisible when it comes to rights, and visible when it comes to blame?

We want the general population, government, donors, and NGOs to view us and our work in two main frameworks: human rights and socio-economic (right to labour) rather than portray us using a cultural and moral framework that is flawed with subjectivity. As human beings and women, we have the right to enjoy full human rights and women’s rights just as other citizens. We do not ask for extra rights but our basic and fundamental rights, particularly the freedom to choose our occupation, livelihood, have access to justice, equal respect and equitable opportunities. If women in private and public offices, professionals and employees are treated as humans, we should be afforded the same treatment, and not be treated as sub-humans. We are workers providing sexual services, but we are also mothers who feed our children, we are daughters who support our parents, we are sisters who ensure our brothers’ and sisters’ education, we are housewives who contribute to our households’ incomes, and we are citizens who fill the economic gaps of our nation. Shouldn’t everyone be proud of our role as active citizens – neither waiting for the government to create jobs for us, nor reliant on NGOs’ charity? At least we earn between US$200 and US$300 per month from our business to cover the costs of house rent, utilities, healthcare, educational materials for our children, food, and paying off our parents’ debts.

It does not matter if we are selling sex occasionally, seasonally, regularly, directly or indirectly; above all, we are responsible for our lives and our families’ livelihood with the only thing we have left – our body. In a system of neoliberal capitalism which reduces women’s choices and creates huge divides between the haves and have-nots, we survive, and sometimes, we barely survive.

We are not criminals and victims of trafficking. We know who the real criminals are. They are commercial banks, micro-finance institutions, and NGOs with micro-credit programs who charge high interest rates between 24% and 36% per year and steal our properties. They are the corrupt officers who took us from the street and massage parlours and asked us to have sex with them in exchange for our freedom. The ministries, officials and NGOs who lock us up in the so-called rehabilitation centre which is designed as a detention centre. The criminals are some of the legal experts who developed the law that criminalises our work and increases hatred as well as discrimination that leaves us no way to live safely. The criminals are those who take away our basic right to healthcare and force us to pay for treatment. The criminals are also those who provide conditional aid to our country, leading to more stigmatisation and discrimination against what we do – our job.

We want to question the responsiveness toward bringing about dignity and rights of women from the choice of policies and programmes that are in place when many of us are being raped, assaulted, harassed, beaten, detained, and starved. Our call remains the same: Respect our choices of what we do, recognise us as resilient social groups and give us access to justice.

WNU often recalls the battle we fought in 2003-2004 when Gilead Pharmaceutical Company wanted to conduct an unethical drug trial of Tenofovir as a preventative drug for HIV infection with 960 Cambodian sex workers. There was only one person who stood up for us in solidarity to defend our lives as Cambodian citizens with full human rights and dignity. That was the Prime Minister Hun Sen who halted the drug trial. The NGO Womyn’s Agenda for Change (WAC) was a strong advocate in solidarity with the WNU while many, including donors, government ministries and NGOs who work on HIV, public health and with sex workers turned their backs on us. If it were not for the Prime Minister Hun Sen, WAC, and the collective voice of sex workers who stood unified, the lives of 960 sex workers would have been destroyed by Gilead’s corporate greed for profit.

This is an example with which we want to call on the women’s organisations, feminist movements, donors, the government and general public to change negative opinions and viewpoints toward us and our work. We hope that you stop looking at us as immoral women with no values, but see us as human beings, women and workers who deserve respect, protection, human rights and justice. This is the effective way to end discrimination, sexual and labour exploitation and violence against women and girls in Cambodian society and elsewhere around the globe.

Image source: Zoriah | CC BY-NC 2.0