Monday, July 8, 2002

Cambodian sex workers celebrate solidarity

The day began with a group of women singing on stage about how to prevent HIV/AIDS. Then came seven transgender dancers, adorned with gold jewelry, make-up, and wearing red and brown silk clothes. With frangipani flowers in their hair, they danced tune and threw petals at the crowd from silver cups.

It was the start of celebrations marking the second anniversary of the sex workers' collective, known as the Women's Network for Unity (WNU). The energy and excitement that characterized the opening continued throughout the day as more than 300 sex workers and NGO staff, all clad in yellow T-shirts bearing the slogan 'Women united to help each other', enjoyed the event designed to help some of Cambodia's most marginalized people. That marginalization is the reason for the WNU's existence.

In June 2000, five NGOs helped the country's sex workers establish a collective, with the main objective to develop solidarity among women working in the industry. "They were stigmatized and discriminated by the very men who sought their services; violent treatment and rape were not uncommon responses to women's requests for condom use; and the women themselves seemed isolated from the friendship of their peers." Two years later the network has more than 3000 members in 13 provinces.

The anniversary celebrations alone proved the network's success. Members organized the day themselves and audience was packed: Princess Rattana Devi was there, as was Mu Sochua, the Minister of Women's and Veteran's Affairs. Other members of parliament joined television crews, NGO representatives and others to record and praise their achievements.

One NGO that helped create the network was Oxfam's Womyn's Agenda for Change. Director Rosanna Barbero says sex workers used to feel worthless and not human; some were even suicidal. "Now they've shed the victim mould and are reclaiming their lives and banding together in solidarity," she says. "They have the strength to stand up and say 'We are human and we are looking after our families the only way we can.'"

Mu Sohua says she is extremely proud of the network members' achievements. "I feel courage and togetherness and wholeness," she says. "The light in this very dark tunnel for our sisters and nieces is already here. It is in their commitment to make the changes for themselves."

The effectiveness of the network in giving women a voice is recognized across the board. CPP legislator Men Sam On believes the sex worker's network should be a model for other vulnerable groups. "After listening to the stories and struggle of our sisters and nieces to live and be recognized as human beings with rights and value I feel excited and full of praise," she says.

"You [sex workers] should enjoy the same rights as everyone else and no one should violate your rights. As a member of parliament I fully support the Women's Network for Unity and would like to appeal to other women to participate in this activity towards positive change for living standards and the social environment and to strengthen [women's] self-determination and improve problem solving."

There is also recognition among NGOs and the government that sex workers are key to prevention of HIV/AIDS and that society can no longer afford to ignore their existence.

Dr. Tia Phalla, the general secretary of the National AIDS Authority, credits sex workers with significantly reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS. "Previously no one paid attention to sex workers and they were excluded from society," he says. "Yet outside the family 100-200,000 men go every day and have sex. Now with the participation of sex workers there is 90 percent condom use. Previously it was 70 percent, so now 100,000 people have already been saved [from HIV]. Participation by sex workers is very important. If society discriminates against them many people will die."

Twenty-four year old Srey Mao, speaking on behalf of them network, says that conditions are still very difficult: sex workers are raped and mistreated by authorities, and those who work in parks are beaten and raped by youths. "We are not different," she says. "We are the same as other women who have the intention to build a bright future but this intention is still a dream that we cannot make come true."

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Created: September 13, 2002
Last modified: September 13, 2002
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