Add United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the list of
people who understand that arresting and punishing sex workers is
counter-productive in the battle against HIV/AIDS. And take the government of Cambodia off that list.
Global Working Group on HIV and Sex Work Policy wrote to Ban in June to
applaud his statement commending the findings of a March report that
favored decriminalizing sex work. The Report of the Commission on AIDS
in Asia noted that sex workers are part of the solution to preventing
the spread of HIV, and advised countries to "avoid programs that
accentuate AIDS-related stigma and can be counterproductive. Such
programs may include ‘crack-downs’ on red-light areas and arrest of
To express their gratitude for
this understanding, sex workers and advocates circulated a statement at
the June 11-12 UN High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS as Ban spoke to the
gathering in New York. "Sex workers thank [Ban] for his support of
their efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic," the statement said.
March report strongly advised countries to enlist sex workers in the
effort to prevent the spread of HIV. It included firm recommendations
against punitive measures targeting sex work and other frowned-upon
behaviors, on the grounds that such approaches have proven
counter-productive. The UN Secretary-General supported these
recommendations in his statement and sex workers everywhere are
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Unfortunately, some governments
continue to deny reality.
Under pressure from the United States,
Cambodia outlawed prostitution in February. The government’s promotion
of a "no condoms, no sex" program in legal brothels there had
succeeded in reducing HIV infection rates, but now those brothels have
closed or gone underground, along with bars, karaoke clubs and street
areas. Hundreds of women have been arrested, jailed or displaced, while
dozens have been raped and beaten by police and prison guards. The HIV prevention and care programs that were working have collapsed.
The new law, ironically named the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation Law, is a failure in every way. It encourages
trafficking and exploitation because it makes sex workers easier prey:
the workers can no longer seek clients in public and must depend upon
others to introduce them. Worse, police now use condoms as evidence of
prostitution, so sex workers can no longer use them. We can expect to
see HIV rates rise as a result.
The U.S. ambassador to Cambodia acknowledged in an article in The International Herald Tribune that
U.S. influence played a part in the passage of this dangerous law. The
annual U.S. Trafficking In Persons Report ranks countries on their
efforts to end the practice according to U.S. perception, with those
low on the list risking economic sanctions.
By passing the law,
Cambodia moved up from the "Tier 2 watch list" to "Tier 2" and thus
evaded sanctions. But
is U.S. aid worth the cost in sex workers’ lives and in lost ground
Sex workers in Cambodia protested the new law on June
4, calling for repeal and an end to raids. "Don’t be fooled by talk of
rescuing ‘sex slaves’ until you have heard our testimonials and seen
video evidence of the brutality and misery this new law is causing,"
their statement said (watch the video below).
workers and their allies also protested the new law at the Cambodian
Mission to the United Nations in New York on June 11, during the
High-Level Meeting on AIDS. Further demonstrations are planned in the
United Kingdom and Australia.
Cambodian sex workers call for a repeal of the trafficking law passed by the Cambodian government under pressure from the US government.
UPDATE at 10:54am: Detained sex workers in Cambodia were released on June 24, 2008
Sex workers documented human rights abuses and sought local and international support in their campaign against these violations. Supporters have been invaluable. The next steps include continued support for changing the law that led to these abuses, as well as immediate care and assistance for those who were abused in detention.