Nary is a 36-year-old hostess at a karaoke bar in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It’s a job that is looked down upon by much of society – regarded as unsavory work for men’s entertainment, and considered sex work by many. Nary’s husband left her after his family found out about her job and were ashamed. Her own family still struggles to accept that she works in the ‘entertainment’ industry.
Before this she worked as a beer promoter in a local bar – selling brand-name alcohol on behalf of big companies – a million-dollar industry for the beverage companies, but again, a job looked down upon by society.
For many women like Nary who are uneducated and lack experience in other, more socially accepted fields, jobs like these are the only way they can earn an income. But they do come with their challenges.
“I was discriminated against and looked down upon by society because they saw my career as a beer promoter as being for bad or improper women. I was sad, but still kept going on with that job because it was all I had, and it was legal. Big beverage companies spend millions of dollars on their business, and we were just the promoters for their products; nothing was illegal at all.”
“I encountered violence in many forms. In my time as a beer promoter, there are no strong laws or any training on the issues – there weren’t even posters about sexual harassment on the walls where we worked. It was common for our customers to assault us and touch parts of our bodies.”
“I encountered so much violence on my own during my work as a beer promoter. Some customers grabbed my body with force. Some asked me to sleep with them as they thought I was a sex worker. Some of my colleagues experienced much more brutal forms of sexual abuse. When customers were drunk, they forcefully touched our bodies without consent and when we refused their advances, they became physically violent.”
“One of my customers dragged me to his car. Luckily, the bar owner stopped him and took me back. I am so thankful for being saved. I don’t know what that man would have done to me.”
“I moved from being a beer promoter to a karaoke bar hostess, but I still see the same violence; it is just a little bit different as KTV work happens inside a closed room.”
Working in a closed room makes for dangerous confrontations with aggressive men who expect to be able to grope the hostesses, and even pay them for sex. And refusing can be risky:
“When we say no, they become aggressive and break their cups or wine glasses in front of us. Karaoke bars are places where most male customers expect to be able to sexually harass the workers, so they expect the privilege of touching the women’s bodies without any consent. Women working there just try to accept this even though we are not happy about it and feel pressured. We need money to feed our families.”
“I saw so much injustice and abuse of women. Women didn’t dare speak the truth in public or challenge injustices.”
Nary decided she’d had enough of the abuse and harassment, and commenced training with CARE to become involved in social work to support women in the entertainment industry.
“CARE taught me so much about the issues. I started to build my courage to speak out in public and joined discussions about the issues to help find a way for entertainment workers to have dignity in their jobs. I now see myself as a strong woman who can work not only in the entertainment industry, but also as a social worker.”
Nary began working with CARE to help empower women working in the entertainment industry, and to engage businesses to be more proactive in preventing and responding to sexual harassment.
“CARE worked hard to challenge the social norms in the entertainment industry. We educated many entertainment workers about their rights and how they could report abuse cases, as well as how to solve conflicts. We also worked with local authorities and bar owners to make sure they understood the issues and became a part of putting a stop to it.”
“We started a very small working group and then with CARE’s support we formed the Solidarity Association of Beer Promoters in Cambodia (SABC). My role in the SABC is to provide training to women working in the entertainment industry on laws and their rights. We also focus on health issues with them, especially around HIV/AIDS.”
“CARE supported our work in both technical and financial ways. Without CARE, I don’t think we could have got through all the challenges.”
“I have changed a lot since I engaged with CARE. Once when I turned on the TV and saw the International Women’s Day event on 8 March, I saw myself speaking in public. I was so surprised. Where did I get that courage and confidence from, to stand and speak out in public? My family members were shocked and surprised as well. I believe it comes from my training with CARE. Everyone in SABC feels the same way.”