We don’t have many success stories in HIV prevention. And it seems like the Bush government is determined to undermine the ones we do have. Cambodia and Uganda, both shining examples of success in HIV prevention, are being squashed into failure by ideologues who would rather see people die than help sex workers and young people live their work and sex lives more safely.
Four in ten sex workers in Cambodia were infected with HIV when the government started its admirable programme to promote condoms in brothels, karaoke bars and on the streets. Sex worker groups also organised to demand health services, and for the most part, they got them. HIV infection rates came crashing down, halving in just 5 years. It is estimated that condom promotion had saved 970,000 Cambodians from HIV infection by 2007.
The programme worked because brothel owners and sex workers were organised, easy to reach and involved. Now, under pressure from the White House, Cambodia has launched a massive crackdown on the sex trade. The result, according to the Phnom Penh Post, is that sex workers are losing their livelihoods, their jewelry, their cash, and getting beaten up in the process.
Cambodian authourities have been persuaded by rescue missionaries such as the International Justice Mission (aka Cops for Christ) that women who sell sex for 5 dollars a day would rather sew T-shirts for three cents a piece. “It is no problem for [prostitutes] when brothels are closed. They can learn different professions from the ministry and local NGOs,” a policeman was quoted as saying.
Chanting “save us from saviors” and waving placards saying “condoms protect, police threaten,” hundreds of red-shirted sex workers demanded their human rights be respected and asserted they did not need to be “saved” from their jobs in brothels, least of all by lecherous, avaricious police officers.
The crackdown is the result of a new “Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation”, which is based on US-style model anti-trafficking legislation. It assumes that the best way to get rid of the very nasty crimes of trafficking and sex slavery is to criminalise the sex industry as a whole. Never mind that there is not a shred of evidence to support this view, and a fair bit of evidence that the reverse might be the case. (A new study from New Zealand, for example, shows that decriminalisation of sex work has led to less exploitation with no increase in prostitution.) What the US Administration demands, Cambodia seeks to deliver. Even the US Ambassador to Cambodia, Joseph Mussomeli, has said he thinks it is likely that Phnom Penh has initiated the crackdown “just to keep the Americans off their back”.
To that extent, it has worked. The latest State Department report on trafficking, published a few days after the crackdown began, has upgraded Cambodia from the wicked to the less wicked category on its trafficking watchlist.
Does the crackdown mean men will stop buying sex? Unlikely. Does it mean that it will be harder to deliver the sorts of HIV prevention and health services that have won Cambodia accolades as an example of “international Best Practice”? Almost certainly, as sex worker activists, reproductive health specialists and even United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have pointed out. (Disclosure statement: I drafted the introduction and epidemiology chapters of the Asia Commission report at the launch of which Ban argued against the criminalisation of prostitution.)
I’ve commented on what’s happening in Uganda before. But readers may be interested in this comment from Sam Ruteikara in the Washington Post. I provide the link not because I agree with his comment, or even particularly because I disagree, but because it is a phenomenal example of spinning the facts by accusing others of spin. Spin doesn’t save lives. Honesty might.