This article explores the situations and experiences of Vietnamese sex workers in Svay Pak, a distinctively ethnic Vietnamese village just outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The article uses the example of Svay Pak as a case study to illustrate how some anti-trafficking interventions fail to take into account the diverse realities of women’s lives.
The concept of trafficking in persons used for the analysis is based on the Trafficking in Persons Protocol.
The article draws on data originally collected as part of a larger study in 2000–2002 to evaluate the impact of a social intervention (a drop-in centre and associated health and community activities) for sex workers in the brothels in Svay Pak village.
The data was drawn from 28 in-depth interviews with sex workers as well as 15 participatory workshops (with 72 total participants) that addressed women’s pathways into sex work. The in-depth interviews focused on individual experiences and opinions relating to entering and engaging in sex work; the workshops elicited group norms and common discourse surrounding migration and conditions of sex work. The data analysis focuses on prior knowledge and expectations of sex workers, entry into sex work, views on sex work and the risk of exploitation and violation of human rights.
The author acknowledges some potential sources of bias in the sample as well as possible issues with the validity of some data. Given the marginalizing of the sex worker community and the difficulty of accessing potential participants, the sample for the study was self-selected. In addition, participants were generally reluctant to discuss problems associated with brothel managers or to admit if they were younger than 18 years.
The research findings fuel the argument that some anti-trafficking interventions harm rather than help women who are vulnerable to trafficking because they do not take into account the women’s motivations or reasons for migration. Migration to Svay Pak is often an independent decision on the part of a young woman and supported by friends and family networks. The women often know that they will be working in the sex industry. According to the author, anti-trafficking interventions often do not address this reality and consequently contribute to abuses of sex workers’ human rights and exacerbate vulnerabilities to HIV infection and other adverse sexual health outcomes.
The research indicates that many Vietnamese women had prior knowledge of Svay Pak and its reputation for employing Vietnamese sex workers. Although there is a general assumption that the majority of the Vietnamese sex workers in Svay Pak were trafficked, the research shows that many of them chose to engage in such work because it is financially lucrative, although the women were often held in debt bondage until they could repay their purchase price. Working in the sex industry in Svay Pak is a reality for many young southern Vietnamese women who come from situations of poverty; poverty and financial gain were the two most reported factors for Vietnamese women to migrate to Svay Pak.
The article does not directly contribute knowledge on migrant smuggling. It does serve to show a strong and traditional migration route for many rural poor Vietnamese women from southern Viet Nam to Svay Pak, Cambodia. However, it is not clear if these women are irregular migrants. There is some discussion in the article of debt bondage and deception of some women who migrate with the assistance of a brothel manager or intermediary.