The Women’s Network for Unity was founded at the end of 2002 by over 160 male, transgender, lesbian and heterosexual female sex workers with its first election to recruit seven secretariat members to work on behalf of WNU. WNU has been registered with the Ministry of Interior since June 2004 (see Annex 1), aims to become a union with 5000 members. Over several terms, a nine member secretariat has been elected as a governance body and 33 team leaders have been elected to implement activities in 8 of 13 provinces and in Phnom Penh municipality. Currently, WNU found the hierarchy structure as having attached in Annex 1. WNU promotes the human rights and civil liberties of sex workers and calls for recognition their rights as workers to earn a livelihood free from exploitation and oppression. WNU also works to build networks capable of promoting dignity and justice for sex workers and of combating all forms of violence (including human trafficking), discrimination and HIV infection.
Sex Workers Have Full Human Rights in a Society Free of Violence and Freedom from Exploitation and Human Trafficking.
To strengthen sex workers network to advocate for the greater participation in program, policy and law development related to sex work that will give them greater access to social services, and freedom from violence and discrimination.
WNU’s history has been affected by outside forces at every stage. The origins of WNU are surprisingly tied up with United States and international politics and sex workers in Cambodia continue to be strongly affected by international policies on HIV, prostitution and trafficking.
A.The United States Government Policies
In 2003 the US policies forced a number of organisations who are the US Agency for International Development grant recipients to withdraw their support for WNU’s mission of sex workers empowerment. An official cable stated that "ORGANIZATIONS ADVOCATING PROSTITUTION AS AN EMPLOYMENT CHOICE OR WHICH ADVOCATE OR SUPPORT THE LEGALIZATION OF PROSTITUTION ARE NOT APPROPRIATE PARTNERS FOR USAID ANTI-TRAFFICKING GRANTS AND CONTRACTS, OR SUB-GRANTS AND SUB-CONTRACTS." This policy has led to the isolation of WNU that uses the slogan “don’t talk to me about sewing machines, talk to me about workers rights” to emphasise the need to address working conditions within the sex industry. However, since then, WNU has continued to seek to build alliances with other grass roots organisations that support empowerment of marginalized groups. US policy also strongly influenced UNAIDS and its co-sponsors in the development of the Guidance Note on Sex Work, which instead of addressing sex workers vulnerability to HIV, focused on addressing “vulnerability to prostitution”, giving de-facto support to Cambodia’s Anti-Trafficking Law which effectively criminalises sex work, and failing to support sex worker led, rights based HIV programs. Another American innovation of the previous US administration was a policy requiring organisations that accept US government funding to adopt a policy ‘against trafficking and prostitution.’ It is easy to state that one is against trafficking but more difficult to effectively address the knotty social problems related to sex work with a blanket statement.
B. The Current Cambodian Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation
Since 2003, a law was proposed that would criminalise prostitution and trafficking. This was in reaction to Cambodia being ranked on the Tier 2 watch list by the US government in its 2002 TIP Report. In 2005, Cambodia’s rank dropped to Tier 3, a ranking that is accompanied by the threat of economic sanctions. In 2006 and 2007 Cambodia was again placed on the Tier 2 watch list and the US government’s TIP reports exerted strong pressure on the Government of Cambodia to enact a new anti-trafficking law that was in line with its policies. Therefore the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation was enacted in late 2007 and promulgated in February 2008. There is little doubt that the TIP reports and ranking had an extremely powerful influence on government law and policy as Cambodia is highly dependent on foreign aid. The enforcement of the new law has led to sex workers facing human rights violations, incarceration, raids, and rescues, physical and sexual abuse. Some sex workers who were detained in rehabilitation centres were are HIV positive and could not obtain their ARVs when they were arrested. When sex workers are imprisoned, their family members who depend on their income go hungry and their children are either also locked up or forced to cope without protection from their parents – something that can drastically affect their current and future lives. During 2008 and 2009, WNU has campaigned against the human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of the law. We have cooperated with other organisations to such as Licadho (human rights NGO), other sex worker groups and HIV activists. WNU has provided financial support and is participating in a participatory research project to analyse the human rights and health impacts on sex workers of the law
C. Healthcare
Health is one of the most significant issues and it is a fundamental of human right, that all human beings should have access to the highest attainable level of healthcare. However, under the current neo-liberal policies, health services are becoming increasingly market oriented and/or privatized. Hundred of thousands of poor people in Cambodia can not access adequate health care. Sex workers, who are one of the most vulnerable groups, can not afford high costs of treatment, care and support. Sex work is not accepted as a profession and sex workers are discriminated against by health service providers.
D. Education
Poverty leads many people to abandon their education and to ended-up with fewer employment options. For many, sex work is the only option or the least bad option to earn a living and to support families. This cycle is repeated for the children of sex workers. Many do not go to school or start learning late and face difficulties catching up with other children their own age in the education system. This is another major concern for sex workers who wish to see a brighter future for their children and hope that they will not be ending up facing the same discrimination and exploitation that sex workers currently experience.
E. Changing operating environment for WNU
In early 2008, the Womyn’s Agenda for Change (WAC) announced that it would cease operation at the end of June 2009. WAC has up to now been a strong supporter of the WNU, providing an office, advice and management support. During the second half of 2008 and up to now, WNU has been preparing for the closure of WAC and facing up to the challenge of operating completely independently. One response has been the development of a new structure that will enable WNU to operate independently and to continue to be accountable to its members and to donors. The proposed new structure is attached and explained at Annex 2. WNU will continue to require short and long term technical assistance for the short to medium term future.
By seeing the various problems and issues sex workers and their families are facing, WNU aims to work to address their needs.