Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual violence and police violence, specifically including violence against sex workers and transphobic violence.
Earlier this year, I wrote about an Amnesty International report about sexual violence against women in Cambodia, and the judicial response (or more accurately, lack of judicial response) to sexual violence. A section of that report dealt with sexual violence against sex workers, and the fact that good portion of such violence is actually committed by law enforcement officials.
Now Human Rights Watch has released a more detailed report specifically about police abuses against sex workers in Cambodia, including but not limited to sexual violence. You can view and download the full report here. The Human Rights Watch press release states:
Police arrest sex workers in regular sweeps on the streets and parks of Phnom Penh. Some of the violence is opportunistic, while other abuses commonly occur in periodic crackdowns and raids by police and district authorities, at times targeting sex workers specifically and other times picking up sex workers along with other groups of marginalized people on the streets.
Police abuse sex workers with impunity. Sex workers told Human Rights Watch that police officers beat them with their fists, sticks, wooden handles, and electric shock batons. In several instances, police officers raped sex workers while they were in police detention. Every sex worker that Human Rights Watch spoke to had to pay bribes or had money stolen from them by police officers.
A 2008 Cambodian law on trafficking and sexual exploitation criminalized all forms of trafficking, including forced labor. Human Rights Watch found that police officers at times can use those sections of the law that criminalize “solicitation” and “procurement” of commercial sex to justify harassment of sex workers. The provisions are also broad enough that they can be used to criminalize advocacy and outreach activities by sex worker groups and those who support them.
Human Rights Watch urged the Cambodian government to consult with sex worker groups, United Nations agencies, and organizations working on human rights, trafficking, and health to review and address the impact on the human rights of those engaged in sex work of provisions in the 2008 law on trafficking and sexual exploitation, before implementing those provisions.
In Phnom Penh, police refer sex workers to the municipal Office of Social Affairs and from there to NGOs or the government Social Affairs center, Prey Speu. Conditions in Prey Speu are abysmal. Sex workers, beggars, drug users, street children, and homeless people held at Prey Speu have reported how staff members at the center have beaten, raped, and mistreated detainees, including children. Local human rights workers, citing eyewitness accounts, allege that at least three people, and possibly more, were beaten to death by guards at Prey Speu between 2006 and 2008.
This is sadly the problem with far too many efforts that purport to be anti-trafficking: they actually don’t work to prevent or address trafficking, but merely serve as a cover to abuse all sex workers and trafficking victims. The stigma, revulsion, and misogyny (combined with many other prejudices) directed at sex workers is enormous. And verbal taunts and harassment easily lead to physical and sexual violence. Dehumanization of sex workers through slut-shaming, classism, transphobia, etc., enforces a culture that turns the other way to such abuses, or actively affirms them. And while not the only perpetrators, law enforcement is always first in line.
That’s why it’s absolutely vital that anti-trafficking efforts actually involve groups made up of trafficking victims and sex workers, to ensure that the law will truly be used to assist those who are victims and not work to create new ones. And it’s also why, as the report addresses (starting on page 60), the U.S.’s inability to do its job as a member of the international community without imposing moralization and anti-sex mandates on other governments is so problematic:
The US is one of Cambodia’s largest bilateral donors, and a major donor supporting antitrafficking efforts in Cambodia. Under the Bush administration, the US government maintained that in order to combat trafficking, countries should take steps against prostitution. National Security Presidential Directive 22 stated that, “Our policy is based on an abolitionist approach to trafficking…. In this regard, the United Statesgovernment opposes prostitution and any related activities including pimping, pandering, and/or maintaining brothels as contributing to the phenomenon of trafficking in persons.”
Since 2003, US legislation dealing with HIV/AIDS and human trafficking has required recipients of international anti-AIDS funding to have a policy “opposing prostitution and sex trafficking” as a condition of receiving funding. The legislation bars the use of funds, to “promote, support, or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution.” This provision was retained when the law was reauthorized in 2008 and remains in force. In May 2010, the US government issued implementing regulations that largely mirror those imposed by the Bush Administration.
This anti-prostitution stance combined with the impact of the annual US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report seemed to show US support for the Cambodian government’s efforts to criminalize voluntary sex work.
While there is no language concerning criminalizing sex work as a means to combat trafficking in the MOU, US policy on sex work under the Bush administration was quite clear. In supporting these efforts in Cambodia, the US failed to consider the context of a police force long known for its problems with corruption and for committing abuses against sex workers with impunity, when it pushed for the 2008 law [that authorized brothel raids and street sweeps].
Nice job, U.S., nice job.
One critique I had about the Amnesty International report was a failure to take a look at experiences by trans* individuals. The HRW report specifically interviewed multiple trans women sex workers. While the information provided about trans experiences is hardly comprehensive, and while it’s highly unfortunate that HRW seems to take pains to separate out trans women sex workers from “female” sex workers and uses other problematic language, some level of inclusion is both positive and illuminating. In the press release, a woman identified as Neary recounts:
“Three police officers beat me up seriously at Wat Phnom commune police station after I was taken from the park. One of the police officers pointed his gun at my head and pulled the trigger, but the bullet did not fire. They kicked my neck, my waist, and hit my head and my body with a broom stick. It lasted about half an hour. I begged them not to beat me. The police officers were cruel and they did not tell me any reason why they did this to me. “
And in the full report (page 33), she also states:
Sometimes the police say, “A-khtoey [a disparaging word for a transgender person] you fuck up the ass. You have HIV/AIDS and you infect other people. You deserve to be shot.”
Unsurprisingly, wherever there is misogynistic violence, there will also be specifically transmisogynistic violence, and it will always be magnified.
At over 70 pages, the report contains a whole lot more than I’ve highlighted in this brief overview, including many more personal testimonies from sex workers who have experienced abuse by police. I strongly urge you to take some time to browse through it, or at the very least read the full press release, and pass it along.