Many women who come to the city of Phnom Penh from the provinces arrive with nothing – no money, no skills and no education. They often find themselves in situations where they are unable to provide for their own basic needs of food, clothing, and housing, and for the needs of their families. Many of the women are under 25 years old – illiterate, deserted by husbands, or widowed and living away from their provincial home. Often they are forced to look for work in karaoke bars and beer gardens – also known as KBB (Karaoke Bars and Beer Gardens) which are known to exploit women and degrade their self-worth.
72% of the girls who work in beer gardens are under 25 years old
25% are 26-35 years old
65% are single, 30% are divorced and 5% are married
35% have only had primary school education
Entertainment establishments such as karaoke bars and beer gardens are socially acceptable places for men to hang out with their friends, drink and often pay for sex. This means that the women who work in these venues, known as ‘entertainment workers’, are often propositioned for sex and can be subject to harassment from male guests. The harassment can include rude language, unwanted sexual touching, physical abuse, threats and coerced sexual acts. Many women are torn by the choice to either have sex with the men and provide for herself and her family or refuse to have sex with them and be unable to support herself and her family.
The women working in beer gardens and karaoke bars are categorized into the following jobs:
• Hostesses: wear traditional clothes and greet customers at the entrance.
• Singers: entertain customers and assist male customers with duets.
• Escorts: socialize with customers, including talking, massaging, and dancing.
• Waitresses: serve food and drinks to customers.
• Beer girls: serve their individual beer brand to customers and socialize with customers in the same manner as the escorts. Traditionally, beer girls are employed by the beer company, and not the karaoke venue, thus are outside the control of the venue manager.
Once a girl has worked as a beer promoter it’s unlikely that she can ever marry. Most are too ashamed to ever return to their hometown for fear of bringing shame on the family and being rejected.
It is believed that there are around 18,000 sex workers in Cambodia alone who are exposed to the following: HIV risks, health risks, mental health risks, emotional trauma, and social isolation.
In general, beer gardens are open spaces with roofs, but no walls, and tables are separated by small trees or potted plants. Some have private and VIP rooms. Beer gardens are often identified by their colored lights, live bands and a line of young girls sitting on show at the entrance to attract customers. While enjoying their food and beer, customers can request the hostess, waitresses, singers and/or the beer girls to join them at their table. During the course of the evening girls will often receive sexual advances by the customers, which girls often feel obliged to accept as they fear the repercussions of losing their job and not being able to provide for their family if they don’t.
Once an agreement has been reached, the girl negotiates her price with the customer and if she leaves work early to provide a customer with sexual services, she must pay the beer garden owner a fine of approximately $5 USD. This is compensation for her lost time in the beer garden venue. Agreements for sexual services are made solely between the customer and the beer garden employee.
The girls that work in the beer gardens usually have the same job descriptions as the girls in the karaoke bars, which is to provide entertainment for the customer and sexual services if required. All of these girls are available for sexual services, at their discretion.
During the key informant interviews, the beer garden managers said they never have enough women on staff to meet the customer’s demands.
In Phnom Penh alone it is believed that there are nearly 1500 beer promoters (this figure is rising on a daily basis) and it is unknown exactly how many sex workers there are. What is known is that many young women’s lives are adversely affected by this exploitation.