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Condoms Feared Criminal in Sex Crackdown

Every night as the sun sets, Srey Mao begins looking for sex clients at a public park in Phnom Penh, where she has worked for the past 10 years. Until Cambodia passed a new anti-trafficking law in February, she always carried a condom, but a provision of the law that bans public solicitation of sex has made that harder.

To carry a condom now is to carry evidence of a crime, Srey Mao said.

"When the police come, I run down into a hole, and sometimes I climb up a tree, not daring to bring a condom along because if the police find it, they will accuse me of prostitution and disorder," said Srey Mao, 40, standing under a tree in front of the Royal Railway station in Phnom Penh.

Over the past few months, she said, enforcement of the new law has meant police in every district of the capital have been arresting sex workers on the streets.

"I never use a condom and always feel afraid the police will arrest us," she said. "Sometimes we hide ourselves under a tree or in the garden bushes."

Article 24 of the "Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation" bans public solicitation of sex, with a penalty of one to six days in prison and a fine of 3,000 riel, about $0.75.

The penalty may seem small, but organizations and sex workers say the new law has been an obstacle to another government initiative, the 100 percent use of condoms in the sex industry, declared in 1999.

Leng Sros, a 24-year-old beer server, said that after the law, the use of condoms diminished among women in her industry who also have sex clients.

"Most of the beer promotion girls seldom use a condom," she said.

Customers are not willing to use condoms, she said. "If we use it, they feel that we are sex workers."

Sou Sotheavy, director of the Men and Women Network for Development, said 100 percent condom use had been made impossible by the new law, which forces sex workers to move from one place to another, from the streets and parks to nightclubs. The moving targets make it difficult to promote condom use, he said.

"How can the condom be used 100 percent," he said. "Even in a proper brothel it was not possible. Then what about such a brief liaison at the public garden, and with the police giving chase?"

Keo Tha is the director of the Women's Network for Unity. The new law has not only put sex workers at risk of HIV, but it is hurting their livelihoods, she said.

"Why are they not allowed to be sex workers? What are they doing wrong?" she said. "When the business is more strict, HIV/AIDS is more widespread."

Police say the new law has allowed them to put order to the streets, making them safer for travelers.

Yim Socheat, police chief of Phnom Penh's Daun Penh district, said police had no intention of driving down the use of condoms.

Officers arrest sex workers with or without condoms, he said, adding that any recent decrease in condom use was due to confusion by the sex workers.

The conflict between the two groups is not necessary, said Dr. Ly Cheng Huy, director of the HIV/AIDS Alliance.

Both sides should understand each other, he said. Otherwise, the implementation of the law won't be undertaken properly, leading to a rise in HIV and AIDS.

Meanwhile, the government is working on an initiative to make police understand that sex workers are victims, not offenders, said You Oy, secretary of state for the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

However, she added, sex workers must not solicit from public places or the street. Such acts not only impact social order, she said, but also Cambodian tradition.