Staying Safe: Preventing HIV in the Mekong Region
Poipet, a city that lies between the boundary of Cambodia and Thailand. Located in northeast Cambodia, the city teems with people. It is home to many casinos which have lured Thai and Chinese tourists coming into the Cambodian city. Karaoke bars with entertainment workers have also mushroomed, catering to both locals and tourists. Amidst this backdrop, a sex industry has sprouted. 26-year old “Bunthoeun” works as an entertainment worker in a karaoke bar in Poipet. “Bunthoeun” used to sell cakes for a living, but she did not earn enough to support herself and her son. She also had to pay for medical treatment for her mother, who is HIV positive, just like her stepfather. “Bunthoeun” says circumstances forced her to seek a job in the sex industry. “I have to face violence from clients. Sometimes they hit me. They throw things at me.” “The owners of entertainment establishments can’t do anything about it. Sometimes they don’t pay me after we have sex. ” Buntheon has become pragmatic about being in the sex industry. She has joined awareness sessions called “Smart Girls” where entertainment workers are taught how to practice safe sex. As part of the program, Buntheon also undergoes regular check-ups at the local clinic. “Now I know about sexual health issues. If we are not cautious, we may get HIV.” “Smart Girl” is a program of Family Health International Cambodia. It is funded by development partners including the Asian Development Bank which supports HIV prevention and risk mitigation associated with major infrastructure projects in the Greater Mekong Subregion. ADB works with FHI Cambodia and its partner “Women” in carrying out the Smart Girl project in Samrong, the capital of Oddar Meanchey province. “Some NGO’s like FHI they have a program like Smart Girl.” “They go inside, they have a peer educator, they provide education and knowledge about HIV/AIDS.” As part of the “Smart Girl” program, entertainment workers are taught to envision what they want to be in three to five years’ time. Creating a future apart from the world they live in right now encourages these “Smart Girls” to move beyond the sex industry. “When we talk about the Smart Girl, they feel they are really modern.” “They are really cute, they are really lovely, and they work too hard to feel what the Smart Girl means.” “Because Smart Girl – it means very clever and very beautiful for them.” “Bunthoeun” is clear on what she wants. She wants to become a dressmaker one day and build a home for her mother. But for now, she’s focused on keeping her dignity and her health intact despite the risks associated with her profession.