Sunday, September 22, 2002

Richard Sine

Sex trade lures Cambodia's "beer girls"

Working on commission for local alcohol distributors, Yun Nit, 22, and other young Cambodian women hover around customers at Phnom Penh's outdoor Madiran Vin Rouge restaurant, imploring them to buy their brand of international drinks. While selling only one bottle of French wine for $2, she has been groped, fondled, and propositioned for sex three times by customers.

Though her farming family in the western province of Battambang is deep in debt, Yun Nit has vowed to resist the advances. But an increasing number of "beer girls," as they are known here, are selling sex in addition to drinks, and up to one-fifth have HIV, recent government surveys show.

In Cambodia, beer girls work late, sometimes are required to wear miniskirts as uniforms, and are encouraged to flirt openly to keep the liquor flowing. With base salaries $20-$80 per month, they depend heavily on commissions — typically $2-$3 per case of beer sold. Refusing a client's advances can be tantamount to losing a sale, they say.

Thousands of women work as beer girls in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, where jobs are scarce for women. The ones who sell their bodies are paid better than prostitutes in brothels and have more discretion in choosing partners. But surveys show that they are less likely than brothel workers to ask partners to use condoms. And they are among the most vulnerable to HIV.

Last year, aid organizations began offering largely US-financed AIDS awareness programs to beer girls. Dr. Var Chivorn of the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia, which counsels women on the sex trade's dangers, estimates that two-thirds of the hundreds of them in Phnom Penh have spent at least an hour in the programs.

Typically, the women do not work directly for the international beer companies but for locally based distributors and exporters. The companies say they depend on the distributors to impose rules for the women's protection.

Tai Hong of Cambodia Breweries said restaurant owners should be responsible for the women's safety. But restaurant owners put the onus on the distributors. Kim Green, AIDS program coordinator for Care International in Cambodia, said, "We have to make the multinationals realize that they are de facto prostituting young women to sell their beer."

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Created: November 14, 2002
Last modified: November 19, 2002
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