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.
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
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
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
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."