Criminalization of Sex Work in Cambodia Undermines HIV Prevention Efforts

Jodi Jacobson

Cambodia was until recently praised by the international public health community for efforts to fight the spread of HIV. But a 2008 anti-trafficking law criminalized sex work and sent sex workers into hiding, undermining human rights and broader public health efforts.

Sex work is one of the issues around which our moral blinders cause such great tunnel vision that we end up causing more harm than good.  We create laws and policies that we assume are for the “good of the victim” without ever consulting the persons engaged in sex work to see what their own knowledge, expertise, and approaches might suggest.  As a result, we end up not only undermining the fundamental human rights of vulnerable populations such as sex workers, we also undermine the very efforts to improve public health, such as through preventing the spread of HIV, into which we pour billions of dollars.

Cambodia, for example, was until recently praised by the international public health community for efforts to fight the spread of HIV, including a 100 percent condom use program, under which condoms were promoted for sex workers as well as more generally.  But a national anti-trafficking law introduced in 2008 broadly criminalized sex work, and sent sex workers into hiding.  The law in Cambodia and other countries came in part under pressure from the United States, which has adopted such a broad definition of “trafficking” and so demonized sex work under laws such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) that as much as a decade of gains in public health interventions with sex workers have been practically wiped out in a number of countries.

“The technology is there to prevent infections, but punitive laws get in the way,” Steve Krauss, regional director of UNAIDS Asia Pacific, told IRIN News.

IRIN reports that according to the multinational Independent Commission on AIDS in Asia, “Asia’s AIDS epidemic is linked primarily to unprotected paid sex, but policies outlawing sex work are undermining HIV/AIDS prevention efforts by fragmenting and stigmatizing the sex workers and turning condom possession into an act that could lead to jail time.”

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This presents a dire problem in a region where carrying a condom has been construed as evidence of illicit activity, but 10 million women sell sex to 75 million men, who then have sex with another 50 million people.

Sex work is a fact of life in an extremely poor country like Cambodia.  A July 2010 Human Rights Watch report states:

People engage in sex work for a variety of reasons that are not unique to Cambodia. One primary reason is economic. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, ranking 87 among 135 countries on the UN’s Human Poverty Index, well below Burma at 77. In Cambodia, 40 percent of the population earns less than $1.25 a day. The net enrollment ratio for girls in secondary school is 28 out of every 100 girls of secondary school age. In the current economic climate, women face even more limited employment opportunities and sex work may seem an attractive economic option.

According to a 2004 Asia Development Bank report cited by HRW, “gender inequalities are endemic in Cambodia’s labor markets.”

Traditional attitudes towards girls’ education and ‘appropriate’ occupations for women and men have shaped existing inequalities and continue to perpetuate disparities in employment.” The report confirms that most employed women in Cambodia work in the garment or informal sector. While a textile and garment factory worker will earn between $45 to $80 per month, a sex worker can earn a monthly income ranging from $90 to $160. Among those interviewed by Human Rights Watch, many entered sex work as a result of economic pressures (often arising from health problems of family members or landlessness) and a lack of other opportunities for education and employment.

Some sex workers therefore engage in this work because it is economically rational for them.  Others are coerced or trafficked into sex work.  While it is difficult to estimate the number of sex workers working out of choice versus the number of trafficking victims, HRW cites at least one credible source of data.

The HRW report states:

An academic study by Thomas Steinfatt funded by USAID in 2003—one of the few studies using statistical estimations based on actual counts—concluded there are about 20,829 direct and indirect female sex workers in Cambodia, with 5,250 in Phnom Penh. Of this number, the majority are over 18 years of age. A 2006 report by the Ministry of Health says there are 6,000 direct female sex workers and 26,000 indirect female sex workers. Many sex workers are ethnic Vietnamese. In addition, there are male-to-female transgender sex workers and male sex workers, but exact figures are not available.

While some women enter sex work voluntarily, others are trafficked or coerced. Steinfatt estimates that of a sample of 20,829 female sex workers, 2,488 women and children are trafficked for sex work in Cambodia, or approximately 12 percent. This is similar to a 2006 study conducted by White, Sidedine, and Mealea amongst 250 brothel based sex workers (all female), which found that 14 percent were trafficked, whereas 86 percent chose sex work on their own

Working with sex workers to secure their human rights, ensure they are free from violence and coercion, especially at the hands of police and government authorities, and building trust with sex work communities laid the foundation over many years to build effective HIV prevention interventions in Cambodia and elsewhere. 

But the new law criminalizing sex work led to the closure of most brothels and drove thousands of sex workers into underground karaoke bars, massage parlours and parks, making them more vulnerable to police corruption and HIV infection, according to Andrew Hunter, founder of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers based in Bangkok.

“The full impact of this new law is still unknown,” said Hunter on 15 October, speaking at a conference in Thailand that gathered 140 civil society and government officials and sex workers from Cambodia, China, Fiji, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Thailand, to discuss issues of HIV/AIDS and sex work.

What is clear is that police are now interpreting the new law in ways that not only criminalize sex work and reduce condom use, but also implicate even those who distribute condoms in public health outreach campaigns.

“Police actually think they have a duty to arrest sex workers and use condoms as evidence. They need legal training – most countries do not accept condoms as evidence in court – but most sex workers never make it to court,” Hunter said.

IRIN cites UNAIDS as noting that the Cambodian law is but one example of policies driving an industry into hiding and making containing HIV a challenge. A coalition of agencies working on HIV/AIDS reported that all the eight countries at the conference on which IRIN reported had created obstacles to accessing HIV services for vulnerable sub-populations: Cambodia and Papua New Guinea specifically criminalize HIV transmission or exposure.

While new International Labour Organization (ILO) standards adopted in June 2010 include sex workers in all areas of non-discrimination, effective education of authorities and effective implementation consistent with the spirit of such new policies lags behind, and until these are addressed, “the stigma and violence that surround sex work will continue to threaten human rights and HIV prevention.”

These concerns do not go unnoticed by sex workers. “Most sex workers say access to justice and process is equally important to law reform – they have no faith that changing the law will make a difference,” Hunter said.

Commentary Contraception

The Double Standard of Military Pregnancy: What Contraceptive Access Won’t Fix

Stephanie Russell-Kraft

Unique military gender politics that make it hard for some servicewomen to ask for birth control also stigmatize them if they get pregnant—especially when that happens at an overseas post or on a deployment. Any effort to increase birth control availability can only be understood against that particular cultural backdrop.

At the beginning of May, pharmaceutical giant Allergan announced that, in partnership with nonprofit Medicines360, it would begin offering its new intrauterine device (IUD) Liletta at a reduced price to military treatment facilities and veterans hospitals across the United States. The company would also support “an educational effort to raise contraception awareness among healthcare providers treating U.S. military service women,” according to its press release.

Military personnel and medical professionals agree Allergan’s initiative represents an important step toward expanding access to the IUD, which along with other long-acting reversible contraceptives (like injections) are particularly well suited to the demands of military training and deployment schedules. But this push to increase IUD use can’t be fully understood outside the context of the unique challenges and stigmas facing women of reproductive age in the U.S. military (who numbered just under 200,000 as of 2011, the latest available data obtained via FOIA by Ibis Reproductive Health).

Despite theoretically having access to a wide variety of contraceptive options, women in the military still report higher rates of unplanned pregnancy than their civilian peers, and it remains somewhat of a mystery exactly why. What is clear is that the unique military gender politics that make it hard for some women to ask for birth control also stigmatize them if they get pregnant—especially when that happens at an overseas post or on a deployment. Any effort to increase birth control availability, including Allergan’s, can only be understood against that particular cultural backdrop.

Nearly every time a U.S. military branch changes policies to include more women, critics raise the old argument that allowing women into the service, particularly in combat roles, will lead to sex between soldiers and thereby distract from the mission. Because of that, the military generally prohibits sex during deployments between service members not married to each other (exact policies vary across the branches and across units, and some are less strict). Taken as a whole, the U.S. military’s policy basically amounts to an abstinence-only approach, with women shouldering nearly all of the risk and blame when soldiers do decide to have sex on deployment.

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Bethany Saros, who enlisted in the Army as an 18-year-old in 2002, faced this blame head-on when she became pregnant by a fellow soldier during a 2007 tour in Iraq.

Although condoms were available to soldiers at her deployment site, Saros did not use birth control. Her decision not to end the pregnancy meant her deployment was over, and Saros recalls meeting several other pregnant women in Kuwait while they all waited to get shipped back. “I felt like a pariah, and I think the other girls did too,” she said.

“It’s not like anyone does this on purpose,” Saros explained. “The fathers of these babies, they don’t get any problems, and they were screwing around just as we were.”

Across all branches of service, pregnant women are typically not allowed to serve on deployments, and, though the length of time varies by branch, women are not allowed to deploy in the six to 12 months after they give birth. According to spokespeople from each of the branches, the reasoning behind the policies is to protect servicewomen and give them the time they need to recover from birth. All of the women I spoke with for this piece told me that soldiers—both male and female—often believe a woman who gets pregnant right before or during a deployment is simply trying to avoid her work.

“The first thing someone talked about when a woman got pregnant was that she was trying to get out of a deployment,” said Lauren Zapf, a former Naval officer, mental health clinician, and fellow with the Service Women’s Action Network. “Whereas if men announce that they’re going to have a baby, there’s a lot of backslapping and congratulations.”

According to Ibis Reproductive Health’s analysis of Department of Defense data, about 11 percent of active-duty military women reported an unintended pregnancy in 2008 and 7 percent reported an unintended pregnancy in 2011—in both years, this was far more than the general population. Younger, less educated, nonwhite women were much more likely to become pregnant unintentionally, as were those who were married or living with a partner, according to Ibis. Contrary to military lore, the pregnancy rates did not differ between those women who had deployed and those who didn’t during that time, the study found.

It remains unclear why exactly military women have higher reported rates of unplanned pregnancy than their civilian counterparts, but one reason has likely been their inconsistent access to birth control and limited access to abortion services. As with most institutions, there’s a difference between official policy and what happens on a day-to-day basis on military bases and in medical exam rooms. Just because most military branches officially require routine birth control consultations doesn’t mean women will always get them, according to Ibis researcher Kate Grindlay, who is one of very few independent researchers looking into this issue.

“One of the challenges that we found [in our research] was that these things were not being done in a consistent way,” Grindlay said. “Some providers having these conversations in a routine way, some weren’t.”

Access to birth control—and the conversations that lead up to it—has improved greatly for military women in the past 20 years. Elizabeth McCormick, a former Black Hawk pilot who served in the Army from 1994 to 2001, recalled that “no one talked about birth control” in any of her pre-deployment medical events in the 1990s. By contrast, some of the women I spoke with who served more recently said they didn’t have issues getting the care they needed.

However, in a 2010 Ibis survey of deployed women, 59 percent of respondents said they hadn’t discussed contraception with a military health-care provider before deployment and 41 percent said they had difficulty obtaining the birth control refills they needed while away from home. Servicewomen also reported being denied an IUD because they had not yet had children, even though nulliparous women can use the devices.

These inconsistencies are part of the problem Allergan says it hopes to address with its education efforts for military health-care providers. The company hasn’t explicitly said what those efforts will look like.

Another part of the problem, according to former Marine Corps officer and Cobra helicopter pilot Kyleanne Hunter, might be cultural. Conversations with military medical providers likely present another major barrier to proper contraceptive care because most military doctors are not only men, but also officers, who, outside the context of a hospital exam room, can give orders that must be respected.

Young female enlisted service members who have internalized the military’s rigid power structures might be reluctant to speak honestly and openly about reproductive care, posited Hunter, who’s currently a University of Denver PhD candidate studying the national security impact of integrating women into western militaries. She said the same dynamic often prevents women from coming forward after they have been sexually assaulted by a fellow service member.

“It adds one more layer to what’s already an uncomfortable conversation,” Hunter said.

When Bethany Saros returned to Fort Lewis, Washington, after leaving Iraq for her pregnancy, a conversation with a male doctor solidified her decision to quit the Army altogether.

“I had to go through a physical, and there was a Marine doctor, and he said, ‘Was there enough room on the plane for all the pregnant ladies that came back?’” she told me, still taken aback by the incident.

Grindlay said efforts like Allergan’s to increase the use of IUDs in the military are “very beneficial” to servicewomen. She also applauded a provision in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to require standardized clinical guidelines for contraceptive care across the armed forces. Under the new provisions, women in the armed forces must receive counseling on the “full range of methods of contraception provided by health care providers” during pre-deployment health care visits, visits during deployment, and annual physical exams.

But there’s still work to be done in order for the military to provide full access to reproductive health care, particularly when it comes to abortion. Tricare, the military’s health and insurance provider, only covers abortions “if pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or the mother’s life is at risk,” and certain countries in which the military operates ban the procedure altogether.

In a sampling of 130 online responses for a medication abortion consultation service reviewed by Ibis in 2011, several military women reported considered using “unsafe methods” to try to terminate a pregnancy themselves, according to Grindlay. One of the women, a 23-year-old stationed in Bahrain, said she had been turned away by five clinics and had contemplated taking “drastic measures.”

According to the 2011 Ibis report, many women sought abortions so that they could continue their military tour. Others feared a pregnancy would otherwise ruin their careers.

Virginia Koday, a former Marine Corps electronics technician who left the service in 2013, said in a phone interview that women can face losing their rank or getting charged for violating military policy if they become pregnant overseas. “Getting pregnant in Afghanistan is good cause to terminate your own pregnancy without anyone finding out,” she said.

“The unspoken code is that a good soldier will have an abortion, continue the mission, and get some sympathy because she chose duty over motherhood,” wrote Bethany Saros in a 2011 Salon piece about her unplanned pregnancy.

For these women, one act of unprotected sex had the potential to derail their career. For the men, it was just a night of fun.

Kyleanne Hunter said that while she doesn’t have a “whole lot of sympathy” for women who become pregnant on deployments (they’re not supposed to be having sex in the first place, she argues), she disagrees with the double standard that allows the men involved to escape punishment.

“Both parties need to be held exactly to the same accountability standards,” said Hunter. “If the woman is punished, then whoever she is involved with should be punished a well, because it takes two. She’s not alone in it. There’s no immaculate conception going on there.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.

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