PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Kheo Tha was driving outside Phnom Penh yesterday when she received a frantic phone call from her friend, a sex worker who works near Wat Phnom.
“She said she had been arrested,” said Ms. Tha, director of the Women’s Network for Unity. “She’s HIV positive, and she needed to stop by the hospital later in the day to get medication. Her children were locked in the house and needed food… She told the police she needed to be released to bring her children food, but they detained her anyway.”
Since Monday more than 110 sex workers have been seized in Phnom Penh, in this year’s largest crackdown on the sex trade – at least on the street.
It is common for widespread arrests to precede public holidays as district police forces attempt to “clean up” the streets by moving homeless people, drug addicts, and prostitutes into temporary detention centers. But the recent spate of arrests has gone unexplained. Police and district authorities have refused to comment.
“Generally, they arrest sex workers before celebrations,” said Ms. Tha. “Why are the police arresting so many people now?”
Fifty-one Phnom Penh sex workers were arrested Monday, another 39 were arrested Tuesday, and more than 20 were arrested on Wednesday. Not only do these arrests demonstrate a conflict between sex workers and police, they also highlight a conflict between the government’s AIDS program – which assists sex workers through healthcare and vocational training – and local police, who prefer putting them behind bars.
In an exclusive interview with Khmer Times on Tuesday, Ieng Mouly, Senior Minister and chair of the National AIDS Authority, said he has pressured the government to stop incarcerating sex workers.
“We ask [the police] not to be so strict,” he said. “They should open one eye, and close the other. As long as [sex workers] don’t do anything that could provoke social disorder, they shouldn’t disturb or arrest them or put them in jail.”
But as the arrests show, the police are not always listening. Sex workers continue to be arrested. They are usually released after a brief time in one of the city’s detention centers, such as Prey Speu. Although police say the arrests can motivate sex workers to change to a safer, legal profession, experts say that the arrests do more harm than good.
“These arbitrary arrests are actually quite destructive for these people’s lives and livelihoods,” said Marie-Odile Emond, country director for UNAIDS. “[Sex workers] are put in centers that don’t meet minimum standards for health and safety. It affects the prevention of HIV.”
Although the stated policy of the Ministry of Health and other branches of government is to focus on helping sex workers through vocational training, healthcare, and other services, incarceration of sex workers persists. “The law on the streets doesn’t match the law in the books,” said Ms. Emond.
For sex workers who rely on daily medication to treat HIV, a 48-hour stint behind bars can be a health hazard. It also puts their families at risk, since many sex workers lack daycare options and leave their children unsupervised at home while they work.
Sex workers are not the only ones affected. Hout Chanyaran, the head of district police, said the police identify prostitutes by watching them call for clients. But sometimes the police cast the net slightly too wide during their campaigns to arrest sex workers.
In midday arrests yesterday, Ms. Tha said that police arrested a woman who happened to be standing near Wat Phnom but was not a sex worker.
Once arrested, some of the women reported being asked for bribes or sexual favors to be allowed to leave police custody. “They have repeated instances of violence and abuse,” said Ms. Emond.
Outside the Law
Although illegal, prostitution falls into a gray area in terms of policing. Officers usually ignore sex workers unless they are engaged in other crimes or cause public disorder. “According to the law, prostitution is prohibited,” said Mr. Mouly, “so we can’t openly tell people ‘you can exercise your profession’.”
“But for us, our main concern is their health and safety.”
Legal penalties rarely deter sex workers, Teo Sichan, director of the Cambodia Women’s Development Agency, said in an interview last week. “They go back to work,” Ms. Sichan said. “Nobody can stop them… they have to work to support their families.”
And while detention centers are supposed to provide vocational training, they often function more as prisons than schools. “[Sex workers] are not getting vocational training at Prey Speu,” Ms. Emond said.
The National AIDS Authority has even been forced to save sex workers from the detention center in the past. “We told the administration to release people with AIDs,” said Mr. Mouly.
“We intervened to release some of them from Prey Speu. They are patients and they need medication. These are human beings.”
Additional reporting by Tin Sokhavuth