MEY reclines on the bed beside her drunken client and attempts to persuade him
into safe sex.
"You must use a condom," she says. The client flails his
arms wildly and shouts at her, grabbing the contraceptive and throwing it into a
corner. "How many times have I told you," he cries, "I won't use them."
Then he lies sulkily on the bed. "It's too hot in here" he
"Come and take a shower," says Mey, exasperated, knowing she
somehow has to persuade him to use the condom before they have sex.
scenario, an everyday occurrence for Mey, is about to play a far more important
role in the lives of hundreds of Vietnamese sex workers across the country.
It is a section from a groundbreaking new video by Medecins San
Frontières (MSF) and UNICEF - entirely written and performed by Vietnamese sex
workers, for Vietnamese sex workers.
"This is the first time in Cambodia
that sex workers have appeared in a video [specifically to train other sex
workers]," said Daniel Dravet, information/communication officer for UNICEF. "It
was their idea to act in the video."
The 12-minute video looks at the
difficulties of dealing with drunken or abusive clients, and of persuading
regular customers (also known as "boyfriends") that they need to practice safe
The action is set in a former brothel in Svay Pak, a notorious
red-light area several kilometers outside Phnom Penh. Scenes show clients
arriving and choosing girls, and then becoming unpleasant or difficult once in
the privacy of the girls' bedrooms.
Marianne Le Calvez of MSF said the
video was conceived in response to the lack of good information for the many
Vietnamese sex workers who come to work in Cambodia.
"They have produced
these kind of videos in Thai or Chinese, but if you want to [get the girls to
listen], you have got to produce something that relates specifically to them,"
Dravet noted that videos produced previously by UNICEF, which
relied on outside script writers, were not so successful.
"We found that
some [sex workers] related to the story, but that mostly the dialogues and
details were not as close to their lives as they could be."
To paint a
truer picture, the sex workers related their stories to UNICEF and MSF,
explaining exactly what day-to-day life in the brothels is like, and the
problems that arise the most often with clients. Then five sex workers were
chosen to write the script itself, and to act in the final production.
they watched the final day of filming, the girls were enthusiastic about their
involvement in the project.
"It's so important to make an example for the
young sex workers, because the older workers have a lot of advice to pass on -
for example they understand how to use condoms well," said Mey, who herself is a
more experienced sex worker.
"The video acts like a big sister," said
Thyhoc, another sex worker. "If we did not see the video [as a new worker], we
would not believe what you have to do."
"The video is doing two things,"
said Dravet. "Firstly, it's about solidarity, showing the older, more
experienced sex workers helping the newer, younger ones. Secondly, it shows them
how to deal with difficult clients."
The girls all nod wearily when asked
if drunken clients are a problem.
"They can be drunk and violent, and
they can scare us," said Yangve. "We try to calm them down by using cold towels
or wet handkerchiefs on their bodies, or making them take a shower [to sober
Although the girls talk freely on screen, and show their faces
to the camera, they are more careful to protect themselves outside the realms of
the makeshift studio in Svay Pak. This means that although the final video will
be distributed to Vietnamese sex workers across Cambodia, it will not be seen in
"These girls do not want their families in Vietnam to know what
they are doing here; most families are unaware of the girls' real profession,"
said Le Calvez. "We have promised not to distribute the video in Vietnam, and to
give them total anonymity."