We are not pretty enough for that

 “It’s perfectly normal for a man to go out with his friends any night of the week, have a few drinks, and then sleep with a prostitute.”Canadian director Matthew Watson about the role of women in Cambodian society.

No country in the world managed to prohibit prostitution entirely, and it exists even in the most conservative and religious societies.Cambodia is a particularly interesting case. The country, along with its neighbors, is infamous for its children prostitution, women trafficking and generally robust sex-for-money sector. Although the number of women involved in the sex industry is declining according to the official sources (around 34 000 -37 000 in 2011 all over Cambodia) , there is no available information on illegal premises, where many women end up working after they become HIV/AIDS positive or too old for the karaoke bars.

When Cambodia introduced a new law on suppression of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in 2008, many sex-businesses had to reshape their activities. Therefore the law basically brought all the sexual workers from brothels (which became illegal and therefore less visible) to so called “karaoke bars”, where girls are not officially prostitutes, but just a company for the men.

I had a chance to see one of the numerous karaoke bars in Phnom Penh after (or rather before) hours. It is not easy for a foreign woman to get to talk to the girls who work, as they call them here, as “entertainment workers”, and even though I could probably enter a karaoke one day (foreigners usually are allowed much more in this paradoxically conservative society), I’d never had a chance to have a conversation with the girls about their work.

Every karaoke looks a little bit like a mix of hotel and a bar – on each level there are rooms, where the clients, almost always in groups, are entertained by their female partners for the night. Karaoke I visited was one of the “fancy” kind. The rooms were cozy, with deemed light, big velour sofas and silk cushions, as well as massive TV screens and fancy chandeliers. Each room could probably fit about 15-20 people, and the Karaoke stayed open all day long. To rent the most fancy room could cost even up to 500 USD per evening.

So how does it work? I was able to ask some questions to Dany Eng, Project Manager for SmartGirl Program that aims to educate girls working in karaokes on HIV/ AIDS protection, their rights and their health. She has been working with entertainment sector in Cambodia for some time now, and explained to me the basic “know-how” of a karaoke bar.

“There are two type of girls working in the karaoke: regular employees, that come every day, mostly 7 days a week, and then the most pretty and the youngest girls, VIP ones. They get to come to work when they want and can pick their clients themselves. Other girls have to wait in the entry lounge for the client to pick them.”

Dany Eng, SMARTGirl Program Manager Continue reading