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Cambodian Sex Workers Routinely Beaten by Husbands

This article is part of a series published by RH Reality Check in partnership with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) to commemorate the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, December 17th, 2010. It is excerpted from Research For Sex Work 12, published 17 December 2010 by the NSWP, an organization that upholds the voice of sex workers globally and connects regional networks advocating for the rights of female, male, and transgender sex workers. Download the full journal, with eight more articles about sex work and violence, for free at nswp.orgSee all articles in this series here.

Much attention related to sex workers in Cambodia in recent times has focused on violence committed by police and local authorities since the passing of the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation in 2008.1 In sharp contrast, little attention has been given to violence experienced by sex workers from those closest to them: their husbands, boyfriends and partners. This article provides a brief discussion of intimate partner violence experienced by Cambodian sex workers and some of the challenges for the Cambodian Prostitute Union (CPU) to support them in addressing this issue. Established in 1998, the CPU is the first sex workers collective in Cambodia, providing support, advocacy for sex workers rights, and education on HIV prevention and health care to sex workers based in Phnom Penh.

My husband regularly beats me, every day. Usually he uses his belt or his hand, sometimes he kicks me too. He beats me because we have problems with our income. He doesn’t have a job and relies on me to support him. Even though we don’t have much money, he gambles and plays cards. He also uses yama [methamphetamines]. Sometimes I stay in a guesthouse or at my relatives’ house to try and escape his violence but he always finds me. He follows me everywhere so I cannot escape him. Every night he follows me to the long road where I get my clients. My husband says I should charge $10 per client. He always comes with me and waits for me. After I am finished with the client he collects the money from me. He says that I cannot be trusted with the money because I am stupid.

These are the words of CPU member Song Vann, 28 years of age. She has a 7-year old son who lives with her mother. Song Vann has been with her current husband2 for over two years. She vividly remembers one particularly violent incident:

One night I only received $5 from a client. When my husband saw that I only had $5 he became very angry. He argued with me, saying that I had kept $5 for myself. He cursed me and pushed me onto the road. I was lying face down. He repeatedly stamped on the back of my head with his foot, banging my face into the road. It didn’t bleed but I got a very large bump on my forehead and scratches across my face. This happened on the side of the main road where sex workers stand to get clients. Maybe ten other women saw my husband do this but they didn’t do anything. It’s normal for a husband to beat his wife. You don’t interfere in one’s family business...


Like many other Cambodian women, Song Vann believes that she deserves to be beaten:

‘I think I experience violencebecause I am illiterate and not clever, alsobecause of my past life. Maybe I committeda lot of sins in my past life and now I haveto pay for them.’

The CPU sees cases like Song Vann’s all the time. Many members believe that they experience violence and other hardships in their lives because of karma, even though others realise that violence is not because of their sins but because their husbands are bad and Cambodian society tolerates violence against women and sex workers. Solving violence committed by husbands and partners is very difficult. Sometimes the CPU calls the police to intervene when members have experienced domestic violence. Officers then come to the house and say to the husband: ‘If you do this again, we willarrest you.’ But the next day they will say that domestic violence is a family matter that should be resolved in the family, and that they do not want to encourage divorce.

Weak Enforcement of the Law

The 2005 Law on the Prevention ofDomestic Violence and the Protectionof the Victim provides legal protectionfor women in Cambodia. However forCambodian women more generally,social and cultural attitudes thatencourage silence around reporting ofdomestic violence and reconciliationbetween couples, combined withcorruption and a lack of understandingof the law by police and localauthorities, result in weakenforcement and implementationof the law. As a result, few cases ofdomestic violence make it to court andwhere formal complaints are made,frequently out-of-court settlements andnon-legally binding divorce contractsare made.

For Cambodian sex workers it is even more difficult. As many Cambodian sex workers typically have no ID card and no permanent address,3 it is difficult for them to make a complaint to the local authorities. Sex workers are also commonly not legally married, which creates difficulties for proving the existence of the relationship to authorities. As sex workers often experience violence at the hands of the police, they are understandably reluctant to approach the police for assistance and do not trust them. Police officers are also likely to discriminate against sex workers, refusing to assist women once they become aware that they are sex workers. Due to the prevalence of corruption within Cambodian society, for sex workers who seek to make a formal complaint, they must also pay unofficial ‘fees’ every step of the way to the police, local authorities and court officials, which many sex workers cannot afford.

How Sex Workers Fight Back

The CPU provides education to sex workers and their abusive husbands about the domestic violence law as well as counselling between husbands and members. The CPU also assists the women to make a formal complaint to the local authorities and will accompany them to ensure that they are not discriminated against. Safe shelter with relevant women’s legal and human rights organisations will also be sought for women who experience extreme violence, at the request of the women. Whilst the CPU cannot provide direct legal assistance, it refers sex workers to supportive local legal or human rights organisations that can provide advice and a lawyer if a sex worker wishes to take the case to court. The CPU leader (Chan Dyna) also regularly talks on public radio to advocate for sex workers’ rights and to stop discrimination and violence against sex workers.

And what happened to Song Vann? The CPU had referred her to a local organisation that could assist her in accessing a safe house, legal services and support, but Song Vann decided to stay with her husband. We understand that it is difficult for her to escape the cycle of violence common in cases of domestic violence and we cannot force her to leave her husband. The CPU continues to provide counselling and support for Song Vann and her husband to try and minimise harm caused to her. We hope that in the future, with the support of other CPU members, she will have the strength and confidence to leave her husband.

About the Authors

Chan Dyna is the leader of the Cambodian Prostitute Union. Keo Sichan and Melissa Cockroft are with the Cambodian Women’s Development Agency, a local women’s NGO which provides technical support and assistance to the CPU.


1 How this law has provided justification for the use of force against sex workers has been highlighted through both local advocacy efforts and the report Off the Streets: Arbitrarydetention and other abuses against sex workers inCambodia, published by Human Rights Watch in July 2010.

2 Like many sex workers in Cambodia, Song Vann refers to her partner as her ‘husband’ although they are not legally married.

3 In Cambodia, to obtain an ID card, you need to have a permanent address. Because sex workers frequently move to try to find work or escape crackdowns, they often do not have a fixed address, or they have no relatives whose address they can use. They are also reluctant to go to the authorities to obtain an ID card due to discrimination and mistrust.

This post wasoriginally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice


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