Although most commend a pilot programme to curtail sexual harassment, some say it fails to address the girls, who may see it as a way to make money.
A PILOT program designed to curtail attacks against beer girls has drawn criticism from several women's rights activists, who argue that it does not engage beer girls directly.
The Non-Violent Workplace Initiative, sponsored by the Ministry of Women's Affairs along with the NGO Care in Cambodia, launched in May and is being piloted in six entertainment establishments in the capital. It was designed to alter the behavior of customers who frequent beer gardens and restaurants and also to encourage beer girls to report incidents of violence and sexual harassment.
In addition to financing a television ad campaign, officials are distributing posters bearing the slogan "No violence in the workplace" as well as meeting with the owners of beer-selling establishments. During the meetings, the owners are advised on how to cut down on the number of inappropriate sexual advances made against their employees.
But Am Sam Ath, a technical supervisor for the rights group Licadho, said the program should also involve meetings with individual beer girls, many of whom, he said, see sexual attention from customers as something that can help them make more money.
"As I am aware, many beer girls in restaurants voluntarily allow men to touch them," he said. "It is a way to persuade men to drink their beer, and they will earn more income if they sell more beer. They are told to compete with each other in selling their beer."
He said he believed "the need to survive" led women to accept - and even encourage - inappropriate advances from male customers, though he acknowledged that some were explicitly instructed by their employers to do so.
"They do not want to have problems at their work," he said. "They have to be patient and stay still when they are touched by men."
Like Am Sam Ath, the Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua, who formerly served as minister of women's affairs, said any government-led effort to cut down on the sexual harassment of beer girls should directly engage beer girls and encourage them to resist inappropriate advances.
"The campaign will not be successful if there is no participation ... from beer girls themselves," Mu Sochua said, though she added that beer companies and restaurant owners were largely to blame for sexual harassment.
I myself also have touched some beer girls, but only when they allowed me. I never force them.
"Beer companies should not use beer girls as a tool to attract men to buy beer," she said.
In response to critiques of the program, Sath Salim, a legal affairs official at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, said: "I welcome criticism of this newly introduced campaign. But please be aware that it is just a trial that has been done at only six restaurants for only two months so far."
She said the ministry had not yet assessed the effectiveness of the pilot program.
Care reported in 2005 that there were 4,000 beer girls in Cambodia.
The country director for Care could not be reached for comment last week.
Inside the beer garden
A Care press release marking the launch of the program said, "We still hear through all forms of media about incidences of sexual harassment and violence against beer promoters in working hours and on the way home."
Customers and beer girls also said in recent interviews that such incidents were common.
Heng Sothearith, a 37-year-old bachelor, said he eats outwith friends at beer gardens and restaurants nearly every night.
"At the restaurant, we like to have beer girls sit around us while we are eating," he said. "My friends said they like touching those beer girls, playing with them or persuading them to become drunk. Then it is easy for them to take those beer girls to do something somewhere else."
He added: "I myself also have touched some beer girls, but only when they allowed me. I never force them."
Puy Hang, the owner of Sabbay Reatrey Restaurant, one of the six establishments participating in the pilot program, said he believed sexual harassment against his employees was on the decline, a trend he attributed to posters featuring the "No violence in the workplace" slogan. But he said harassment had never been much of a problem at the restaurant, which opened in 2003 and employs 10 beer girls.
Srey Mean, 35, who has worked as a beer girl since 2001, said she repeatedly turned down requests to drink with her customers.
"I explain to them that I would have a problem if the company saw me sitting with customers. The company might fire me," she said. "Some customers understand this, but some do not. They try to give me money and keep insisting that I sit down and drink with them."
Law in the works
Both Sath Salim and Ing Kantha Phavi, the minister of women's affairs, noted that the ministry was working to draft a law that would protect beer girls specifically.
Ing Kantha Phavi also said the new draft Penal Code, approved by the Council of Ministers last month, includes a section "focusing on the rights of beer girls to prevent them from being touched by customers during working hours".
She said the law would call for fines to be levied against "those who touch beer girls", though she said it would not call for jail time.
"I cannot give more details about the law while we are still working on it," she said.