Research Intern, Jindal Centre for the Global South,
O.P. Jindal Global University, India.
There is a prominent presence of Vietnamese migrants in Cambodia due to historical reasons and demand for labour in the construction sector. For Vietnamese women who have migrated to Cambodia, the sex industry (including massage parlours and dance halls) is an important sector of employment. Many of them are irregular migrants, which, along with their profession, adds on to their increased vulnerability and makes them a tempting subject of exploitation. As a result, much of the research with regards to migrant inflow into Vietnam has focused on human trafficking, especially that of women and children on two fronts- the Vietnam China border (where women are sold into China as sex workers and brides) as well as the Vietnam Cambodia border (which usually works as a channel for peddling women across the border into Cambodia as prostitutes). This article focuses on the case of Vietnamese women in Cambodia – who form a major part of the workforce of the sex industry of Cambodia.
Despite long-standing ethnic tensions between the Vietnamese and Khmer, Vietnamese sex workers have been particularly popular in Cambodia because of stereotypes that position them as sexually adventurous and uninhibited, as well as less worthy of respect than Khmer women. Initial pathways into sex work do not necessarily define sex workers’ current beliefs, motivations, or priorities, which are likely to be more important for designing proper HIV/AIDS and social programs to meet immediate needs. Furthermore, failure to recognize the complex dynamics behind why women enter the sex industry and how it is later organized can lead to “anti-trafficking” measures that harm the communities they aim to serve.
While sex work is not explicitly illegal in Cambodia, unregulated police control and laws against brothel ownership, pimping, and the sale of individuals for sexual exploitation have all coalesced to support the de facto criminalization of sex work.
In the post-conflict period of the mid-1990s, brothel managers suffered extortion from local authorities while sex workers experienced raids, arrests, and rape from armed military and civil police forces working under loose governmental control. Managers further imposed constraints on sex workers’ mobility and in many instances dictated the terms of employment-for example, by insisting that sex workers not use condoms with certain favoured, regular clients. Thus, despite Cambodia’s official “100 per cent condom use policy” for brothels, sex workers could not always choose safer sex, putting them at risk of HIV/AIDS and other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).
Many sex workers underwent varying degrees of pressure, usually by family members. Severe poverty, often catalysed by an illness in the family, and a lack of other options drove families to push their daughters into sex work. Some had dabbled in other work trying to earn a living in Cambodia but transferred to work in brothels to not return home empty handed.
As seen in many case studies, like that of Svay Park, we are exposed to imminent threats the sex works go through in their daily lives. The threats are aiming towards their basic dignity, human rights, and well – being. They do not even have the legal protection which caters to their needs. Lack of proper management in brothels and the lack of a grievance mechanism just makes everything worse for these sex workers. But, beyond the abuses of brothel managers, persecution and assault by the police was by far the greatest risk reported by sex workers. Through NGO rescues and police raids, there has been an array of unfavourable consequences for the sex workers. Brothels pay monthly protection fees to the local police, but it still did not prevent regular harassment, refusing to pay for sex, and rape from vagabond military police. One such dire situation is when women have no choice but to bribe their way out of police custody or “rehabilitation centres” which, as per law, cannot hold adult women against their will. This leads to sex workers falling into a debt trap. Also, due to heavy presence of the police during raids, it also hampers the business of sex workers as the clients run away. This further hinders their daily earnings and reducing the possibility of the women to get rid of their debt. Job insecurity and harassment by police also adversely affects the health conditions of sex workers. Despite having the general awareness about HIV and other STIs, the ability to protect themselves from these diseases lay outside of their control. Thus, manifestations of harassment by the police and armed forces offered no room for negotiating for safer practices.
In November 2001, Cambodia signed the UN Protocol against Trafficking in Persons, adding to its own 1996 Law on the Suppression of Kidnapping, Trafficking, and Exploitation of Human Beings that had not yet been implemented properly and regularly. But studies have found that both the police and NGOs routinely used the existence of “trafficking” as basis for raids on brothels, with no clear regulation.
Cambodia hosts an environment where sex work is criminalized, and related migration is termed as “trafficking” by the system. This will continue to pose significant barriers to sex workers’ strategies for enabling their livelihood. The ability of these women to seek redressal for human rights violations is highly limited due to the ambiguous legal status of their work and residency, as well as their ability to advocate for improved terms of employment. Sex workers are further disempowered by their lack of political participation which finds how limited international efforts to target “trafficking” will eventually be both interpreted and implemented in the local context.
Many studies have proved that, while repressive policies can worsen human rights abuses and limit access to services, adopting an empowerment framework that aims to give sex workers the skills and opportunities to manage their own work environment can improve both their health and human rights.
Thus, it is paramount to note that international debates relating to migration and sex work often address and cater to wider issues framing the global sex industry, such as a lack of regional sustainable development, gender inequity, and international labour market. Many think that sex work was the best of extremely limited options, and these individuals often make mention of the pressures faced by families who are confronted with sustained rural poverty in southern Vietnam. In the long term, poverty alleviation, elimination of gender disparities, and local economic development will ensure that only those women who genuinely choose sex work migrate to the regions like Svay Pak, which is an epicentre of sex work in Cambodia, locate. Better opportunities and prospects for legal migration and decriminalization of sex work would ensure protection and safeguarding of women, children and their labour work.
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Busza, J. (2004). Sex work and migration: The Dangers of Oversimplification: A Case Study of Vietnamese Women in Cambodia. Health and Human Rights, 7(2), 231. https://doi.org/10.2307/4065357
OECD & Cambodia Development Resource Institute. (2017). Interrelations between Public Policies, Migration and Development in Cambodia. OECD. https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264273634-en
Panwar, Y. (2021). Evolution of Policy of Illegal Migration in Southeast Asia. CSS| Centre of Security Studies. https://www.cssjsia.com/_files/ugd/348fae_16b8f741bf5647d9b06f84af30740747.pdf
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.