Eirn Sokkhoeut was 20 years old when she moved to Phnom Penh from Banteay Meanchey province four years ago, seeking a degree in business management. She rented a room in the city’s Tuol Kork district and quickly got a job as a cashier at a massage parlor.
But her salary wasn’t high, and the hours were long. When her landlord told her about a job as a waitress in a KTV club, she jumped at it. The change was immediate.
“The hours are much better and I earn more money,” Sokkhoeut says, adding that she now works around eight or nine hours a day instead of 11 or 12. And while she previously made just $100 a month, she can now send $200 or $300 back to her family in that time. The KTV owner helps pay for housing and school fees, reducing her cost of living.
But despite these perks, Sokkhoeut says her job is fraught with danger – usually stemming from the KTV’s clients. “A lot of the male clients try to touch or grope us,” Sokkhoeut says. “Sometimes they [create] problems, they come in drunk with a gun or smash their glasses on the ground.”
For years, Sokkhoeut and her colleagues kept silent in the face of violence, she says. They felt ashamed when men harassed them, and they were often afraid to ask for help. But then she met Chenda, a woman collaborating with the French NGO Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), and she began to re-consider what type of behaviour she deemed acceptable.
“Now I know my rights and I know I can talk to other women about what’s happening,” Sokkhoeut says with a twinkle in her eye. “It’s about fighting back and knowing how you can respond.”
Now Sokkhoeut teaches other KTV workers about the ways to protect themselves in dangerous situations. ACTED’s training program includes group discussions on sexual and emotional violence, and educates women about who to call when they’re in danger, like the local police and other hotlines for victims of violence.
Once the women have completed the program, they in turn become peer educators – and bring the lessons they’ve learned inside the KTV, where problems persist.
“Dangerous incidents happen every day,” Sokkhoeut says. “The customers are considered king, and often the KTV owners act like it is okay for them to behave badly. But now we know we can call the authorities if we need to.”
KTVs are ubiquitous in Asia, granting customers a late-night opportunity to sing – and drink – with young female employees. A 2012 UNICEF report estimates that there are about 35,000 “entertainment workers” in Cambodia’s KTVs, the majority in Phnom Penh. Over the past three years, ACTED’s program has reached around 7,000 women in the capital.
But these establishments are also synonymous with sex. At some KTVs, women don short skirts and high heels sit in rows in the establishments’ neon doorways, waiting to be selected by a customer.
As a result, women in most KTVs face a range of dangers, from being drugged to rape. A culture of impunity, in which male customers feel entitled to the bodies of female employees, is pervasive, some KTV workers say.
Women are often forced to drink with their customers, leaving them intoxicated and vulnerable, says Ou Tepphallin, the vice president of the Cambodian Food and Service Worker Federation. Sometimes men pressure the women to accompany them to a guesthouse to have sex, and then disappear the next morning, leaving the women with the bill for the room, Sokkhoeut says.
So solidarity is one of the women’s only tools for surviving the job. Through ACTED’s program, the women meet monthly to discuss how to drink responsibly and use subtle techniques to avoid drinking without offending customers. They also talk about their right to turn down sexual advances, and how to practice safe sex when they consent.
“Sometimes men try to force women to have sex with them even if they know the woman is married and has a family,” says peer educator Tra Chantha, a 20-year-old who handles the karaoke machines in a KTV. “But we use role-playing and group discussions so that women know it’s up to them whether they go with the men.”
For Chantha, who is in frequent contact with male customers during her work manning the karaoke machines, the program was a game changer. “Before, I was very shy and afraid to make a customer unhappy,” she says. “Now I’ve figured out how to get tips without even touching anyone, just by being confident and smiling and using the right words.”
According to Sokkhoeut, the program gave her the guile to de-escalate a tense situation, and the skills to calm down in the face of stress. But perhaps most importantly, it gave her a support network of women who listen to her.
“We aim to build relationships amongst entertainment workers, to help them to talk about the difficulties they face in their work place and build support systems to cope with these challenges,” explains Ginny Haythornthwaite, ACTED’s Cambodia country director. “We want to move away from the stigma surrounding entertainment workers and for them to realise they have value.”
For KTV workers, changing professions is difficult due to the lack of alternative sources of income. Many of the women arrive in Phnom Penh from distant provinces without many economic opportunities. But in a culture where high value is placed on “virtue”, some women say they feel disrespected outside of work.
“I’m always afraid that people in my hometown will discriminate against me now,” Sokkhoeut says. “People assume that if you’re working in a KTV, then you’re not a good girl. Even my family thinks I’m having sex with men.”
Teaching the women to respect themselves is one of ACTED’s main goals. Sitting in their monthly meetings, the women repeat messages about their value and self-worth. The program uses peer education as a way to build trust and self-esteem among the entertainment workers, including victims of sexual violence.
“Sometimes I face resistance from other women who think I’m too young to teach them anything,” Chantha says. “But I try to explain that I also work in a KTV, and it’s important for us to know our rights.”
Additional reporting by Kong Meta