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Caught Between the Tiger and the Crocodile: The Campaign to Suppress Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation in Cambodia

In 2008  Cheryl Overs of PLRI  supported Women’s Network for Unity and the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers to respond to the introduction of the Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. This article describes events in Cambodia at that time, including the abuses that ocurred in the  crackdown on the sex industry generated by the law.

The law abolishes the distinction between consent based sex work and trafficking by demming any commercial sex out of which anyone has profited to be ‘ sexual exploitation’ which is not distinguished from ‘trafficking’. In this way the law makes almost all aspects of buying and selling sex and associating with sex workers illegal. As a result a wave of crackdowns on commercial sex venues and street sex workers took place across the country.

Caught Between the Tiger and the Crocodile outlines the responses by local sex workers organisation WNU and the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers and others. 

Sex workers’ organisations have made, and proven, allegations of serious abuses including rape, violence and unlawful detention by police, prison guards and NGO staff. Moreover they say that closing down the sex industry makes women more vulnerable to traffickers, corrupt police, loan sharks and others to whom they turn for ‘help’ in such an emergency. As a result of the crackdown the main HIV prevention programme for sex workers, operated by the Cambodian government, could no longer operate and community based HIV prevention projects reported serious constraints and reductions in numbers of sex workers accessing STI services.  

These are some of the points made by sex workers in the report: 

  • Street workers were being arrested and forced into detention centres that purported to provide skills training but were in fact jails in which men, women and children were locked up together without adequate food and water, medications or hygiene. The arrests and detentions were unlawful and many of those arrested were subject to rape and beatings. 
  • Closure of sex venues in the country meant that programmes to provide condoms, clinical services and information to sex worker effectively collapsed. Sex workers relocated to venues that purport to offer only massage or karaoke in which condoms are forbidden lest they be used as evidence of prostitution and street workers have also stopped carrying condoms for the same reason.
  • Many sex workers have lost their livelihoods, land, savings and access to medical care, including ARVs. 

The accompanying video contains direct testimonies from sex workers who have been subject to human rights violations in the wake of the new law. 


Human Rights and Law application-pdf-7358307caught-between-the-tiger-and-the-crocodile.pdf