Photo: Jonathan Cox/ Khmer Times

A sex worker in one of Phnom Penh’s entertainment districts. Photo: Jonathan Cox/ Khmer Times

A long history of gendered power relations leave sex workers dangerously vulnerable today.

Sex work has a lengthy history in Cambodia.

Equally, sex workers have existed side-by-side with often gendered state procedures, both formal (laws, decrees, etc) and informal (unofficial payoffs, institutionalised impunity, and so on).

State and government interest, governance, and regulation of the sex industry has assumed different forms under various political regimes; though in each case advice and borrowings from previous incumbents (and ideologies in the case of the Khmer Rouge) have informed subsequent regimes’ responses.

For example, the French colonial state (1863-1953) contrived means of containing those depicted as filles malades (bad or diseased women), as well as creating numerous maison de tolérance (licensed brothels), as outlined by Larissa Sandy in her study, Women and Sex Work in Cambodia: Blood Sweat and Tears.

Prince Sihanouk’s domination of Cambodian politics from 1955-1970 saw intermittent shifts between regulation, containment and crackdown. In 1961 brothels were prohibited and their licenses revoked. However, by 1963 this policy was scrapped: brothels were reinstated, sex workers taxed and health cards issued (see pp38-39 of Sandy). These kinds of shifts also characterised the short-lived Khmer Republic (1970-1975) under General Lon Nol.

Under the austere Khmer Rouge regime, sex work was effectively abolished as the population came under intensive scrutiny from the paternalistic and all-knowing Angka (the Organisation). Gendered action/inaction was common.

Evidence exists of ‘forced conjugal relations and rape’, as well as regime blindness to the unique sufferings of women, including dysmenorrhoea (abnormally difficult or painful menstruation), miscarriage, and death during childbirth (for more detail see Haing Ngor’s Surviving the Killing Fields). The Khmer Rouge regime can, in equal measure, be viewed as both gendered and oblivious to gender.

Within this history a common feature emerges – the existence of gender-based relations of power between the state and sex workers.

These gendered practices did not end in 1979, and the end of Khmer Rouge rule. The state- and institution-building process that took place from 1979, as well as the international intervention of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), also bore witness to the re-emergence of a sex-industry.

The Vietnamese-backed Cambodian forces that would establish the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) inherited a nation without a state, lacking a functioning judicial system, bureaucracy, skilled personnel, and a politically impartial army or national police force (as outlined by Evan Gottesman in Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge: Inside the Politics of Nation Building).

The ability of the PRK state to function effectively, allocate resources, and provide sufficient wages was further hampered by ongoing military conflict against numerous factions, including the Khmer Rouge.

The fledgling state was in a battle for survival. An important aspect of this was retaining the support of the military, police and state officials. This in turn drove the (re)emergence of informal channels of generating extra earnings.

The abuses of local authorities were rarely reported in spite of them being knowingly committed. State officials within the Council of Ministers stated that: ‘Abuses of the law are almost entirely committed by state cadres who studied law once or twice already…[T]he abuses are not committed as a result of lack of understanding. They are committed intentionally for the purpose of winning more absolute power’ (see Gottesman p 240). Corruption became widespread.

These early decisions, many of them probably unavoidable, as well as the aforementioned facts on the ground, would shape state and institutional engagement with sex workers – the consequences of which have been overwhelmingly negative from the vantage point of governance and human rights.

One example in particular is worth expanding upon.

In 2008, the National Assembly passed the “Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” (LSHTSE). Aimed at protecting the victims of forced trafficking, the laws vague wording and implementation have proved problematic, allowing enforcers to work “around the law.”

The article on “soliciting” is worded in such a way as to implicate outreach workers, thus restricting their access to those in need. In addition, the punishment of “imprisonment from one to six days and a fine…” has been abused by local authorities looking to supplement their wages.

Indeed, Amnesty International reported that uniformed police officers, abusing their authority and assuming their actions would go without punishment, had physically and sexually abused sex workers (see also this Human Rights Watch report). Furthermore, sex workers, due to their generally weak economic position, are in many cases unable to pay the bribes in order to push their cases through the (partial) courts and judicial system.

This is not to argue that the entire responsibility of overseeing sex work should rest with the NGO community, just that the issue has deeps roots in the historical development of political institutions and routes of formal and informal decision-making that need to be understood and attended to by those best positioned to do so.

The state, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and to a lesser extent the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, are in a unique position to allocate the human and material resources to govern/regulate the trade in sex, protect the victims and survivors of sexual violence, as well as prosecute the perpetrators of such violence.

If they fail to do so, it could be another case of history repeating.

Scott Rawlinson is currently a Fellow, and Coordinator for Fellows, at the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS), Phnom Penh. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the institute.

This article is adapted from a piece submitted as an MA South East Asian Studies thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.