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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Poverty, disease, and death: a family's tragedy

Poverty, disease, and death: a family's tragedy

Mom Van's children help their sick mother to sit up for the photo.

From left: Ouk Chanseda, Ouk Chanlina, Mom Van, and Ouk Chanvantha.

N

ot so far from the Sorya mall on Street 63, going past St 154, on the left is a

narrow alleyway just wide enough for a motorcycle, with small houses on both sides.

Near the end of the path, Mom Van is lying quietly on a wooden bed covered with a

plastic roof to avoid the sun, a syringe attached to her right hand and an intravenous-drip

bottle hanging from the house wall. She has a hand on her forehead and represents

a family that is suffering great tragedy.

Mom Van, 58, is chronically ill. She has become increasingly sick since 2000 after

her two children, a daughter-in-law and a young grandson died, three of them gradually

from AIDS-related diseases.

Van has not been able to eat food for more than ten days. She cannot stand or sit

by herself, cannot turn her neck to either side. She has diabetes, lung cancer, a

stomach ache, and paralysed legs. She does not have AIDS.

Every day Van watches her youngest daughter, Ouk Chanlina, 20, go to work at the

karaoke bar. A tear runs down her face to the pillow.

"She is as small as a wrist and she goes to work like that. I take extreme pity

on my daughter, but I do not know what to do," Van said with a trembling voice.

Chanlina works for a massage and karaoke bar in central Phnom Penh. She works from

2pm till 12pm, but sometimes stays till 3am or 5am if there are still customers.

"If I don't go to work, my mother, two older brothers and another nephew won't

have rice to eat. I can sleep without eating rice, it is no problem at all, but not

my mother, nephew or my brothers," she said.

Chanlina is now responsible for supporting the five people who make up the family

group.

In the house, besides three beds, there is only an old tape recorder, two fans, one

chair, a clothesrack. Nothing else. If the beds are occupied they sleep on the floor.

Chanlina had six elder siblings. The eldest brother has married and left; another

brother and his wife and youngest son have died from HIV/AIDS and left a 12-year-old

son; a sister, Ouk Chankaknika, died of uterine cancer; two other brothers are still

alive. Chanlina's blood father died in the Pol Pot period; her stepfather works at

Prey Sar prison.

Her sister Chankaknika was a famous singer at the Pacific King Karaoke and also sang

on TV in Australia. Chankaknika died in early 2000, aged 26.

Chanlina said Chankaknika used to support the family. When her sister was alive,

her two brothers and she got a chance to study, her mother was in good health and

her family knew happiness. But after Chankaknika died, the studying ceased and her

mother fell sick.

Her fourth and fifth brothers do not have jobs and stay at home. Her fourth brother,

Ouk Chanvantha, 24, took second prize in a singing competition on TV5, but after

three years he still hasn't got work.

Chanvantha said: "I keep looking and hoping for a job as a karaoke player or

actor. I want to continue my elder sister's post.

"I do not have money to bribe, I do not know or have a well-known person who

can help me to get a job," Chanvantha said. " I nearly forget how to sing

after I spent many years practicing.

"Nowadays I practice singing by bare mouth, because as you can see my house

doesn't have TV or microphone."

He and his younger brother stopped studying in grade 7 and 4, and Chanlina at grade

5.

Their low level of education is not uncommon. According to 1999-2003 education indicators

of the Ministry of Education, only 67.3 percent of people from 15 years up are literate.

Chanlina started working as a cigarette seller to support her family but after about

three years the employer went bankrupt. She worked as a waitress for $10 to $20 a

month but it was not enough for the long hours, so she stopped.

She got a job at a karaoke bar but she says they cheated on her salary for four months,

so she quit.

She wasn't being paid, so her family didn't have rice to eat and her mother got seriously

sick. That was when she decided to sell her virginity to an Australian man for $700

for one night.

Several days later, Chanlina began at a karaoke and massage bar where she is still

working today as a karaoke girl and a beer girl as well.

"If someone gives me a lot of money, I will go to sleep with them," Chanlina

said.

A survey funded by Heineken beer company says beer girls typically earn about $50

a month; they are docked pay if they do not sell their monthly quota of beer.

Chanlina said she can earn $100 a month ($40 salary and the rest in tips from customers).

"But $100 is not enough; it will only buy medicine for my mother. Everything

I earn we have to spend and it is never enough."

The family mortgaged the house for $300 for treatment for Mom Van and they also owe

neighbors 100,000 riels from buying food and desserts. They pay interest of 80,000

riels a month on the $300 loan.

Chanlina said she wants to change her job. She would like to learn how to dance,

but says this is unlikely to happen because she has an unlucky life. "I will

stop working at the karaoke bar very quickly if I get a job as an Apsara dancer.

It is extremely valued and honorable."

She is afraid of getting HIV/AIDS and said she had her blood tested once in 2000.

The result was negative.

A preliminary research report covering 20 provinces and cities from 1995 to 2002

by the National Center for HIV/AIDS of the Ministry of Health showed that 28.8 per

cent of 2,109 direct female sex workers, and 14.8 per cent of 1,231 indirect female

sex workers had HIV/AIDS.

Chanlina said she is getting very weary of her present job. "Customers always

catch, hug and tighten my body. They do everything as they want."

Ouk Chankaknika in 1999, on the plane going to sing in Australia.

"They are mostly over 20 years old and they are powerful people. They say things

to me like: 'If you don't go with me, your life will not escape tonight' ... 'If

you have self-respect, why do you come to work here?'...'Why are you so headstrong?"

One customer who is a military policeman pointed his gun at her head and forced her

to stay with him a full night even though it was time for her to go home. She said

she was lucky the policeman couldn't perform sexually with her because the workplace

does not sell condoms.

Chanlina said there are more than ten karaoke girls in her workplace. Two are younger

than her and three workers are the same age she is. She said she sometimes uses the

threat of catching HIV/AIDS to discourage customers, by saying: "Do you want

to see my blood test result?"

She was pressured many times to sniff glue or to take yama (methamphetamine) "but

I won't ever sniff those drugs because I think I will become a drug addict and then

it will cost me a lot of money to buy the drug," Chanlina said. "And then

how about my mother, my brother and my nephew? What would they eat?"

One night a customer secretly put ecstasy in her water glass. "After I drank

it, a few minutes later, my head started shaking while hearing music. I felt very

happy," Chanlina said.

Oung Chanthol, director of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center, said she made a TV

documentary to educate customers to stop threatening beer girls. Most of the beer

girls surveyed were harassed by customers and some customers shot beer girls if they

refused to have sex.

An August 2003 study Selling Beer Safely, funded by the Heineken Beer Company to

assess the situation of girls promoting beer in Cambodia, surveyed 184 promotional

beer girls in Phnom Penh and 800 workers around the country.

Of those surveyed, 79 percent said they had witnessed other beer girls being physically

abused at work and more than half had been assaulted themselves.

Chanlina said: "The customers are very cruel."

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