Nearly one in five of the Kingdom’s female “entertainment workers” reported having considered suicide while almost one in 10 actually attempted to take their own lives in the three months prior to being interviewed for a study published this week.
Entertainment work is a broad church, with workers including women “in different entertainment venues, such as karaoke bars, restaurants, bars, nightclubs”, said Dr Siyan Yi, who led the team behind the study.
The industry swelled in 2008 when many of the country’s brothels were closed down by a change of legislation, Yi explained. Today, while much of Cambodia’s sex work takes place informally in bars and clubs, not everyone working in the entertainment industry is a sex worker.
Of the 657 entertainment workers Yi’s team spoke to in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, just 124 reported having sex in exchange for money or gifts; 21 reported clients asking not to use a condom; 118 had induced abortions; and 149 had been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection.
The study found a correlation between women feeling at greater risk of HIV and higher levels of psychological distress, and said that existing evidence “suggests there is likely a bi-directional relationship between poor mental health and sex work”.
Kim Sophal*, 46, is an outreach worker with the SMARTgirl program, which provides support and education to entertainment workers. She believes the high levels of suicidal ideation among them could be attributed to women being raped by their clients or not having enough money to support their families. Yi’s study found the average monthly income of the women to be $220.
However, working in the entertainment industry carries stressors beyond the world of unregulated sex work.
One hundred and seventy of the women said they were forced to drink at work, while, on average, those surveyed reported getting drunk 18.7 days a month.
Keo Tha, 50, has worked in the entertainment sector for the past 20 years; first offering sexual massages, she now reserves erotic services for a select few customers.
“Sometimes I want to kill myself because of work pressure,” she said. “But I think from time to time, if I die, who will care for my children and parents?”
Family issues figured high in Yi’s research. More than a quarter of those surveyed reported having been physically or verbally abused as children, with 19.5 per cent having been touched sexually. But 85.5 per cent reported having had someone who took care of and protected them, while 90.3 per cent said someone in their family had made them feel loved.
“Many things have been done so far in terms of workplace interventions,” said Yi (Tha and Sophal agreed that entertainment is a far better field to work in than it once was).
“But it could be a good idea to do something to improve the situation, protecting [entertainment workers] from being forced to drink, providing something for counselling or doing something to protect their rights,” she added.
* Name changed to protect identity.