An issue that has gone quiet over recent years, is that of Cambodia’s beer girls. Although the dark side of this profession was exposed a few years ago, big beer companies and drinking establishments in Cambodia’s biggest cities continue to exploit young women on a nightly basis.
Cambodia's biggest beer garden culture can be found in cities such as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Over recent decades tourism has increased and big beer companies saw an opportunity to capitalise on this. A beer girl's job is to promote and sell as much beer as they can for the establishment or beer brand they work for. Employed by local and foreign breweries, they spend their shifts approaching customers, persuading them to drink with them. These young women are usually paid on a commission-only basis. This means they often have to drink all night long with their customers, encouraging them to spend more money, exposing them to high levels of alcohol consumption, violence and harassment.
Cambodia’s beer girls are generally from poor and rural communities. Many of them work in these establishments to provide money for their families back home. Young women in rural Cambodia are often forced to migrate to bigger cities to find work. The majority of them would have only gone to school up until the age of 8. This means that higher-paying, more qualified jobs require skills and studies that these girls have no chance of obtaining.
It has been revealed that there are girls as young as 16 years old working in these beer gardens
With the majority of Cambodia’s beer girls being in their early twenties, it has been revealed that there are girls as young as 16 working in these beer gardens. Some of these young women are the victims of human trafficking. Beer girls are forced to dress in tight-fitting, revealing clothing and flirt with men. Many have expressed that they have been forced to have sex with customers to make extra money. This has put them in great danger. The people that come to drink in these bars perceive them more as ‘sex workers’ rather than as beer promoters.
The ambiguous nature of the job and the lack of official work contracts has lead to exploitation, sexual harassment and coercion into prostitution. These women are left with little choice but to continue to work at in beer gardens or end up working in the sex trade. Their lack of self-worth and dignity, coupled with gender inequality and society's labels mean they find it hard to escape the injustice that surrounds them.
Beer girls are at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS
Although more has been done by employers to educate beer girls about sexually transmitted diseases, they are still at high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. They are often assaulted and the men that visit them expecting sex in exchange for money will often refuse to use protection. The majority of men who frequent beer gardens in Cambodia are tourists, policemen, politicians and businessmen.
These questions remain. Why is more not being done to protect these women? Why are these huge beer companies complicit in the exploitation of young women? And how is it that men in power are also the ones taking advantage of the women and their situations?
Previous initiatives have been made by the industry to establish Codes of Conduct for the beer girls. But due to corruption, gender inequality and the rise of tourism, little has been done to improve their working conditions. Wages remain low and these women are not protected from harassment, dangerous situations or sexual assault. Whilst tourists enjoy the vibrant nightlife of cities like Siem Reap, these girls are being exploited right under their noses.
We cannot wait for these men to change the way they view women.
We cannot do nothing and wait for the corruption to subside. We cannot wait for these men to change the way they view women. We cannot wait for these companies to relinquish their profits for the protection of these young women. While we continue the fight for gender equality in Cambodia, right now, the way forward is to empower young women. Give them an education so they take control of their lives, health and dignity.
Through education, they have the opportunity to escape human trafficking and exploitation. Join us at Women Going Beyond in our mission to provide development and education skills to young women in rural areas of Cambodia. Without this, they have little chance to break free from the poverty cycle they were born into. Work with us, or make a donation to change the lives of these young women.