This was the message Women’s Network for Unity (WNU),  a Cambodian sex worker-led collective, shared at the regional Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) workshop last week from October 21-25.  Worker-led collectives from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Timor Leste joined the meeting in Phnom Penh and echoed these words.

Nirmala Ghosh, an outreach worker for sex worker collective Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in Kolkata, India told Asian Correspondent through a translator that she became a sex worker when her husband was ill in 1995 and it fell upon her to support the family.  She needed a job that would pay enough to care for her sick husband and four children.

“My husband didn’t know I was working as a sex worker even though his co-worker helped me find the work,” she said. She had told him she was working as an assistant to a nurse.  “He didn’t know before but now he knows and accepts it.”  She said the entire family is supportive of her reasons for entering the trade and “agreed there was no way out” for her situation at the time.

She also busts the myth that sex workers have no other work options.  “Many laborers, if they don’t find work, go and do part-time sex-work.” Sometimes, sex work itself is the other option.

Children of Indian sex workers walk in a rally to mark International Human Rights Day in Kolkata, India last year. Pic: AP.

Virak Horn, a young Cambodian gay male sex worker and WNU member told Asian Correspondent that it is because of sex work he can help his parents in the countryside and pay for his university degree, which he is currently studying for.  Horn himself also works as Project Coordinator for MSM with CPN+ (Cambodian People Living with HIV Network), but as his salary as a health advocate is only $40-60 a month, he freelances as a sex worker at bars and nightclubs.  “But I am happy to work [as an advocate] because in Phnom Penh many people don’t know what happens to male sex workers.”  Like Gosh, Horn describes his family as supportive of his work. But he says that many female Cambodian sex workers face stigma and abuse due to gender norms.

While sex workers do not deny the dangers, they say human rights and poverty need to be addressed instead of abolishing the trade. WNU works closely with other grassroots groups like farmers, fisher folk and land grab victims under the umbrella of the Cambodian Grassroots Peoples’ Assembly in order to address losing land to economic concessions and agricultural debt that has forced men and women into economically desperate situations.  They also offer legal consultation for sex workers who have been arrested or abused by clients and English and Khmer classes to the children of sex workers to help them stay in school.  Their message is that sex worker rights are human rights.

And it seems that the United Nations has listened.  Two recent reports, HIV and the Law and Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific, recommend decriminalization in order to reduce violence against sex workers and improve the responses to HIV.

Cheryl Overs, member of the Technical Advisory Group of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, told Asian Correspondent from Australia, “overall I’m really happy about the Global Commission report.  It was chaired by feminist author Shereen el Feki and retired Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby. It took evidence and weighed it up.”

The Global Commission received 680 submissions from 140 countries, many of them sex worker groups,  that  showed condoms being used as evidence by police; lack of trust in police and violence from them; lack of access to HIV prevention and care; exploitation by criminals and clients; rape and unreported sexual violence which increase the likelihood of acquiring HIV; and reduced access to housing and education.

Lack of trust in police is a major issue among Cambodian sex workers. Pic: AP.

Susan Lopez, co-founder of the U.S.-based Desiree Alliance sex worker group, told Asian Correspondent,It’s such a political hotspot—even though the research supports decriminalization, nobody wants it to go through.”

Anti-trafficking groups such as Equality Now based in the U.S. would be an example of such pushback.  They challenge the U.N. reports and suggest instead using the Swedish model which criminalizes the client.  Yet the Global Commission found criminalizing the client to be a failure.  “Evidence to prove a crime is nearly unattainable. Workers do not consider themselves to be victims and are almost always unwilling to testify against their clients,” said the report.

Equality Now did not respond to requests for comments.

India is considering introducing the Swedish model, an initiative that was previously struck down. When asked her thoughts on this, Ghosh just shook her head in disbelief. “Clients should not be punished, but rather hooligans, pimps and people exploiting sex workers should be punished.”

Ghosh said her collective in India has created a banking system called “USHA” that has allowed them to have more control over their own funds and avoid micro-credit lenders that charge 30 percent interest rates.  With 19,000 sex workers contributing to the system, it has been sustainable.  Previously economic instability had caused the women to have less power over their sexual health and reduced their ability to negotiate condom use, which led to more illness, which in turn forced them to borrow money to pay for health care.  They now have no need of a middle-man (described by Gosh as “babu” or pimp) and can control their own money.  Gosh can now save half of what she earns each month.

Melissa Hope Ditmore, research consultant on gender, development, sex work and HIV told Asian Correspondent: “The Global Commission report on HIV and the Law listened to sex workers from every region of the world, who described police abuse and abuse of authority, as well as stigma and discrimination promoted by criminalization of sex work. Female, transgender and male sex workers described bribery, theft and abuse made possible and then exacerbated by criminalization of sex work. Why would anyone want to discount their voices rather than address the abuse described?”

Indeed sex workers’ voices seem to be the ones best tuned into their community’s needs.  While Horn earns more money working freelance in nightclubs catering to foreigners because he can speak English, he knows street-based workers are more vulnerable.  Children of sex workers whose parents are arrested have to drop out of school to support themselves.  “We are creating an emergency fund to help my community,” he says. “For example, if a sex worker is arrested at Wat Phnom [a popular location for street-based workers], she can get out of jail and have a place to rest in case of emergency.”

Ditmore , who has done research in Cambodia said, “Sex workers are part of the solution and should not be excluded or demonized because others don’t like the idea or the actuality of sex as a commodity.”

This October the World Health Organization has moved forward with guidelines on implementing HIV and STI programmes led by sex worker groups.