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Law puts girls at risk in Cambodia

Across Asia, an estimated 10 million girls and women work in prostitution selling sex to around 75 million men. The regional director of UNAIDS in the Asia Pacific has expressed concern that many are being put at risk of infection from HIV/AIDS because of laws outlawing sex work. Worried about being arrested, many women are fearful to be found with condoms, let alone seek legal or medical help when they need it.

In Cambodia, policemen believe it is one of their duties to arrest sex workers. Even though possession of condoms is unlikely to be accepted as evidence in court, having condoms can be a factor in a woman’s arrest. According to a July report from Human Rights Watch, even those who distribute condoms can now be implicated in illegal sex acts. UNAIDS is worried such policies will discourage the use of condoms to protect against HIV/AIDS. Ironically, in Cambodia, the law specifically criminalises HIV transmission and exposure.

The situation in Cambodia used to be very different. A few years ago, the country introduced a 100 percent ‘Condom Use Programme’ which required condoms to be made available for sex workers and allowed for selective enforcement of anti-sex work laws. But in 2008, a new law against sex-trafficking was introduced in Cambodia. This resulted in the closure of most brothels and sent the sex industry underground.

According to a recent BBC documentary, there are an estimated 100,000 sex workers active in Cambodia today. Around one third of these are thought to be girls under the age of eighteen. Since brothels were closed, many girls now work in clubs and bars, where they dance on stages to be selected by male clients. Although the legal age for girls working in these bars is meant to be sixteen, many Cambodian girls start much younger and it is not uncommon to find thirteen or fourteen-year olds in the bars.

In the capital Phnom Penh, the BBC film crew found eighteen-year old Alang, who had been sold into the sex industry at thirteen. Alang’s aunt said she was taking her to the city to study, but instead the girl was sold into the sex industry and kept in a hotel for male clients. Even though Alang escaped more than once from the men who first bought her, she still works as a prostitute. With little formal education, Alang has no other way to support herself, though she wishes there was a way to escape her life in the industry.

As well as lobbying governments over how sex trade laws are being implemented, non-governmental agencies and charitable organisations try to offer support to vulnerable girls. But it is not always easy, particularly when children are often sold into the sex trade by their own families. And with an estimated 500,000 dollars spent every night by Cambodian men in the red light district of Phnom Penh, clearly there is no shortage of demand.

Laurinda Luffman signature