The thing about events at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is that they’re rarely light-hearted. In fact, the Center’s focus on under-reported issues means that events almost always deal with heavy topics.
Such was the case at Talks @ Pulitzer featuring Steve Sapienza, Antigone Barton and Sebastian Kohn in a discussion about the challenges facing sex workers in Cambodia.
I had no idea that at one time Cambodia had one of the highest percentages of HIV infections among sex workers in SE Asia. I mean, there’s no reason I should know that, but I found it surprising nonetheless.
To stop the spread of the disease, a 100% Condom Usage law was enacted and effectively decreased the number of new infections by over fifty percent. Clearly, it was wild success.
However in 2008, the government attempted to tackle a different (yet tangential) issue – sex trafficking. A new law to curb trafficking shuttered brothels, made prostitution illegal, disrupted vital health initiatives for sex workers and cut off condom distribution programs.
In fact, following the new law, police officers could arrest sex workers and use condom possession as evidence against them; their one line of protection was criminalized. Condom usage plummeted and HIV began to rise yet again.
It’s upsetting that by conflating sex trafficking and sex work these unexpected side effects left an already marginalized population even more at risk.
What’s more, many government-run programs only offer sex workers access to health services if they renounce prostitution – a catch 22 for those who rely on the sex industry for their livelihood.
Support is being found instead through volunteer run organization such as SmartGirl, which provides outreach to promote condom usage and offers free HIV screenings. Volunteers are largely former or current sex workers themselves and this peer-to-peer dynamic seems to be a promising approach.
For more on this thought provoking topic check out Sebastian’s short film, The Hidden World of Cambodian Sex Worker: New Risks, New Hope on npr.org.
Know Before You Go:
The Pulitzer Center’s office opens to the public thirty minutes before the presentation begins. Typically, wine and light snacks are served. Talks @ Pulitzer events are live-streamed so even if you cannot attend in person, you can catch the discussion online at
- Kelly P.