Aarti Kapoor in front of anti-trafficking center

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (WOMENSENEWS)–An anti-trafficking center and women’s shelter in Phnom Penh is operating on a business-as-usual basis more than a year after it suffered a major setback.

One day in December, 40 female prostitutes came to the shelter to obtain free medical check-ups, condom supplies and a meal. Staff at the shelter had leafleted areas with known street prostitution in Phnom Penh to reach out to prostitutes and provide them with health and education services.

“We tell them HIV-AIDS is not like other diseases that one cannot control,” says Aarti Kapoor, acting director of Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances. “We empower them by telling them they can prevent contracting HIV with safe sex practices and the use of condoms.”

Since its inception 10 years ago the international anti-trafficking organization has assisted more than 3,000 women and girls trying to escape forced prostitution. From its headquarters in Phnom Penh, it provides the women with counseling, training, rehabilitation and reintegration into society via its five centers in Cambodia and operations in surrounding Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

The U.S. State Department estimates that each year at least 700,000 and possibly as many as 4 million people are carried against their will across borders around the world, with between 14,500 and 17,500 trafficked into the United States. Approximately 80 percent of trafficking victims are female and 70 percent of those female victims are furnished to the commercial sex industry.

But while business at the shelter is back to normal, memories of what happened a year ago remain fresh enough that staff members still feel jittery.

“It’s been a difficult and prolonged issue but unfortunately it’s a hazard of the job,” says Kapoor.

Raid Briefly Freed Women

More than a year ago, on Dec. 7, 2004, staff of the center joined local police to conduct a raid on the Chai Hour II Hotel, then a notorious marketplace for women enslaved by traffickers, where posted signs advertised that “virgins” worked at the hotel.

The raid was a brief success; 83 women and girls were rescued. Eight men, believed to be pimps, were arrested at the hotel but quickly released by officials without charges.

Such rescues are nothing new for the center, which had assisted police in a handful of other similar raids. But events that followed were unprecedented.

The next day a crowd surrounded the street outside the center and about 30 armed gunmen–staffers believe they are part of a huge organized crime network in enslaved sex workers–stormed the center’s gates.

“At first a handful of cars lined up outside the barbed wire walls and front security gate,” recalls Kapoor. “Then, men started pushing on the gate and yelling at the women inside encouraging them to flee.”

Eventually the gate broke open and the men abducted the 83 who were rescued that day along with eight others who had been in the center previously. A staff member was assaulted. Since then, none of the abducted women has returned to the shelter.

The attack on the center drew international criticism and the European Union and the United States threatened Cambodia with economic sanctions if it didn’t improve its anti-trafficking record.

U.S. Downgrade in October

In October, after deciding the country had not made significant progress, the U.S. State Department downgraded Cambodia’s rating for enforcement of anti-trafficking laws to the lowest level, indicating a weak judiciary. The downgrade triggered sanctions on non-humanitarian and non-trade related assistance, which meant withholding some funding for economic development.

“The Cambodian government has at least noticed they cannot just act how they want and expect everyone to continue as normal,” says Kapoor.

Skeptics, however, say the sanctions are not much of a weapon against the interests of organized criminals in a multi-million dollar enterprise.

Cambodia has come under increasing international scrutiny for silencing political dissidents and three human rights activists were recently arrested for criticizing the nation’s prime minister. Observers fear that Cambodia–still struggling with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979 which left 1.7 million Cambodians dead–is taking a cue from neighboring Burma, where a repressive regime has stifled free expression.

Meanwhile, some in the Cambodian government continue to blame Kapoor’s anti-trafficking organization–and not the criminals–for the U.S. downgrade, said Wenchi Yu Perkins, director of the anti-trafficking and human rights program at Vital Voices, a Washington-based organization that focuses on women’s social, economic and political issues. A sign in front of a Phnom Penh cafe.

Kapoor agreed and said that in the wake of the downgrade other groups have also felt intimidated. “I was at a meeting with nongovernmental organizations and government officials and when I began discussing the case I was told to stop talking about it. In my view, this case is about traffickers, pimps and corruption. It’s about exploiters getting off free while women and girls are being treated like farm animals.”

Government Defends Itself

As Cambodia’s tourism industry continues to grow, the government denies any laxity toward trafficking. In a statement published last summer in the Cambodia Daily newspaper, Secretary of State H.E. Prum Sokha said the government has worked with international organizations and launched a division devoted to anti-trafficking and sexual exploitation in 2000. In 2004, more than 700 victims were rescued, 400 suspects went to court and the government established a national hotline to receive tips on new cases.

“Our message is: Cambodia is no longer a safe destination for traffickers and pedophiles,” Sokha wrote.

But in the case of the attack on the shelter, Yu Perkins has found the government committee unimpressive. In an official statement, the committee said it lacked evidence that the women inside the shelter were forcibly removed.

She says the case shows the government’s lack of commitment to combating human trafficking and its willingness to leave the problem to advocacy groups. “Political strife and government corruption are the biggest barriers,” she says.

Others, however, take a more optimistic view.

Somaly Mam is president of Acting for Women in Distressing Situations. “The role of the government is paramount and absolutely non-expendable,” she says.

Mam points out that the raid was a joint effort between the advocacy group and the police and that such partnerships between government and civil society must be expanded. “We all have lessons to learn from this incident. I would like to make a call for us to move on from all this quarreling,” she says.

Karen Louise Boothe is a writer and international democracy consultant based in Minneapolis. She has reported for NPR, BBC, CBC and numerous news publications.

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For more information:

Acting for Women in Distressing Situations:

Vital Voices Global Partnership:

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women:

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