The Phnom Penh Post

Sex work­ers gather to re­mem­ber Kunthea

- Martin de Bour­mont

A LIT­TLE more than two months af­ter her death, nearly 50 sex work­ers and their sup­port­ers gath­ered on Fri­day to hon­our the mem­ory of Pen Kunthea, a Ph­nom Penh sex worker who drowned in the Tonle Sap river on the night of Jan­uary 1 while flee­ing Daun Penh district se­cu­rity guards.

A mother strug­gling to sup­port two chil­dren, in­clud­ing a po­lio-af­flicted son, Kunthea has taken on a some­what sym­bolic sta­tus among Ph­nom Penh sex work­ers strug­gling to as­sert their rights, even as her death deeply rat­tled the com­mu­nity.

“To­day, our ob­jec­tive is to cel­e­brate the mem­ory of Pen Kunthea, who died 62 days ago now,” said Pech Po­let, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Women’s Net­work for Unity (WNU), an or­gan­i­sa­tion that ad­vo­cates for the rights of sex work­ers.

“Our sec­ond ob­jec­tive is to strengthen sol­i­dar­ity among sex work­ers, among women’s or­gan­i­sa­tions, and to stop dis­crim­i­na­tion and give dig­nity to sex work­ers.”

For Po­let, it was im­por­tant for the cer­e­mony to re­mind those in at­ten­dance that Kunthea was an or­di­nary woman in ad­di­tion to be­ing a sex worker.

“All women are hu­man be­ings and they de­serve dig­nity, free­dom from harm, free­dom from vi­o­lence,” she said.

The cer­e­mony be­gan at 4:30pm on Preah Sisowath Quay, 300 me­tres east of Wat Ph­nom – not far from where Kunthea died – and lasted nearly two hours. Or­gan­is­ers from WNU laid a white cloth on the ground for at­ten­dees to write mes­sages for Kunthea. The at­ten­dees sang to­gether and pro­ceeded to walk to the site of Kunthea’s death, be­side a group of tourist boats docked on the Tonle Sap river­bank. There, they boarded one of the boats and placed lo­tus flow­ers in the river.

But as badly as Kunthea’s death shocked those she worked with, sex work­ers say the ha­rass­ment from au­thor­i­ties that ul­ti­mately led to her death per­sists.

“Noth­ing changed,” said Kong Savoeun, af­ter the cer­e­mony.

A sex worker who ran from se­cu­rity guards with Kunthea on the night she drowned, Savoeun con­tin­ues to work in a Ph­nom Penh karaoke bar. “When I am stand­ing and wait­ing for clients, the po­lice still crack down, and I fall to the floor and get small in­juries,” she said. This hap­pens “at least once a week”, she said.

But de­spite the ha­rass­ment, Savoeun said the cer­e­mony gave her hope. “Be­fore, we just kept quiet, un­til now when we come to cel­e­brate” Kunthea’s life, she added.

Dim Srey­oun, a sex worker from Kan­dal prov­ince, also found in­spi­ra­tion and com­fort in the cer­e­mony. In a pre­vi­ous in­ter­view in Fe­bru­ary, Srey­oun said that af­ter Kunthea’s death, she was too scared to work in Ph­nom Penh. The cer­e­mony, along with reg­u­lar meet­ings be­tween sex work­ers or­gan­ised by WNU, helped change her mind.

“I am not afraid any­more, I am still com­ing [to Ph­nom Penh],” said Srey­oun. “Be­cause of the unity among the sex work­ers af­ter Kunthea died, we got more feel­ing that we are united,” she said.

“Not only one woman died this way,” said Soma Yunont, who has been a sex worker for 10 years, re­fer­ring to the vi­o­lence sex work­ers face from law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties and their clients. “Many other sex work­ers are very wor­ried about how to make money for their liveli­hood, and we hope the po­lice will come back with a bet­ter so­lu­tion rather than con­tinue the ac­tions they have com­mit­ted against sex work­ers be­fore,” she said.

To that end, said Keo Tha, a for­mer masseuse who now works as an ed­u­ca­tion and health of­fi­cer for WNU, ad­vo­cates “re­ally need to raise more aware­ness to the pub­lic, to let all the women know that the sex work­ers are also women and also need equal rights like other women”.

The night be­fore the cer­e­mony, Tha spoke to an au­di­ence of univer­sity stu­dents in Ph­nom Penh, ex­plain­ing how eco­nomic ne­ces­sity brings women to the sex in­dus­try, and stress­ing the im­por­tance of re­spect­ing the rights of all women, re­gard­less of their so­cial sta­tus. To un­der­score her point, Tha showed the stu­dents a pic­ture of Kunthea, printed on a sheet of A4 paper.

“Tomorrow, I will go to a cel­e­bra­tion for a sex worker who died,” she said. “She was rais­ing two chil­dren.”

Even though Kunthea was a sex worker, said Tha, “peo­ple in Cam­bo­dia should know that she was a hu­man be­ing”.

 ?? MARTIN DE BOUR­MONT ?? A woman at a me­mo­rial ser­vice holds flow­ers and a photo of Pen Kunthea, a Ph­nom Penh sex worker who drowned while at­tempt­ing to flee from district se­cu­rity guards.
MARTIN DE BOUR­MONT A woman at a me­mo­rial ser­vice holds flow­ers and a photo of Pen Kunthea, a Ph­nom Penh sex worker who drowned while at­tempt­ing to flee from district se­cu­rity guards.

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