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Sex workers turn movie stars to help make life safer

Sex workers turn movie stars to help make life safer

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

slurs.

"Come and take a shower," says Mey, exasperated, knowing she

somehow has to persuade him to use the condom before they have sex.

This

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

sex too.

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,"

she said.

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.

As

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

them up]."

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

Vietnam.

"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."

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