Guest blog post: Safe cities for women and girls

Posted on December 04, 2015 at 12:56 PM

Safe Cities

By Rodney Rice, board member of ActionAid Ireland

On Cham Da is a beer promoter in a restaurant in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. A beer promoter’s job is to encourage a man to drink more. This may mean accepting an invitation to sit beside him. Whether employed as staff or on commission the pressure is to comply. The alternative will be unemployment.

Sitting beside means physical contact. Drinking more beer may well lead to more intrusive contact. Even serving the table can bring harassment. On a recent night a customer grabbed Om Chan’s bottom as she opened a beer for him. That is sexual abuse. An indignity at the very least.

Many of the beer promoters in Phnom Penh’s restaurants, bars and karaoke clubs are young women, new arrivals from rural villages in search of the type of job few of them will find. Up to 4000 women do this work in the country.

Om Chan is no longer so young. She has been in this business for 12 years. She’s now married and would rather work elsewhere but has no training or trade to release her from this situation where one can also be slapped or threatened by customers without recourse. And she also faces indignities that do not involve touching her body.

“You’re old,” came another recent comment. “Why are you still working? If I was your husband I’d cut off my arm that I can’t feed you and you have to work like this.” A demeaning slight, an indignity hitting at both herself and her husband.

It can get worse. Much worse. Sinath Pov is also a beer promoter. Another long in the business. In her case in a karaoke bar where the men may be drunker than in a restaurant earlier in the evening.

“A girl I worked with was in a private room with two guys who were singing their karaoke favourites. They were flirting with her. Suddenly they grabbed her, took her outside and pushed her into a car. There were few left in the bar. No one saw. The motor bike taxi men outside didn’t do anything.

“In the car, four other men were waiting. They drove to a nearby guest house where the door was open as if expecting them. She was taken in and gang-raped by all six. No one responded to her shouts.” The six rapes concluded, the men abandoned her at the guest house.

Did she report her abuse to the police? Did she tell them where the house was? Did she seek support from Sinath Pov or other friends? No, no and no. “It is very shameful.” She didn’t tell anyone at the time. One night she saw one of the men coming into a karaoke room again. She ran out. She was scared. She cried as she told me the story. She asked me not to tell anyone. She is still working at the bar.

Those two accounts of the facts of the beer promoter’s life, presented simply and without emotion, were told to me at a meeting in Phnom Penh on my way home from ActionAid’s annual international assembly.

The country girls who flood into Phnom Penh, Bangkok, most African capitals and many other cities of the global south are driven by poverty into easy exploitation. Many accept it is a way out of desperation for them and maybe for their families through the money they send home to the village. When they go home they give imagined accounts of their work in supermarkets or garment factories.

That’s why ActionAid has begun to work towards Safe Cities for Women in many of the countries in which it works. Dublin was the first developed world capital to sign up for the UN Women Safe Cities global campaign. Dublin is not Phnom Penh in this regard so if the city council here sees reason to take such a step then how much more necessary it is in poorer lands. ActionAid Ireland has joined the fight through its Irish Aid-assisted women’s rights programmes in Malawi, Kenya, Vietnam and Nepal and of course supports its Cambodian colleagues as they seek to raise awareness there of what is not totally a distant problem.

Boramey Hun told me about ActionAid Cambodia’s strategy and expectationsfor their campaign. “We want to give more visibility to an issue that was not talked about, whose existence was not acknowledged. Through our work in a like-minded coalition we have succeeded in making it visible using media, dance and drama and trade union activity. It’s a five year project that we hope we’ll have funds to extend. We’ll have public events; we need people to tell their stories.”

People know that much that happens will not be spoken of publically. Trade unionist Phaline also represents garment workers who, though they may occasionally face sexual or physical harassment inside the factory, are more afraid of what may happen outside.  There are more than 300,000 women garment workers in Phnom Penh said to support nearly 2 million family members in rural areas. They are particularly vulnerable when they first arrive, unaccustomed to the city numbers and the cramped conditions of life, the dangers of theft, violence and rape for those caught off guard “Some women say that after work they run all the way from the factory to their homes,” says Phaline.

Of course, it depends where you live. Om Chan is much more relaxed going home. “My neighbourhood is a good one. We have no gangsters, gamblers or drug addicts. The streets are lit, but I’m not sure about women in other areas.”

For ActionAid and its partners it will be a long haul to make cities around the world safer for women. But the work has begun. The Safe Cities for Women campaign has relevance in our developed world. Our engagement is needed here at home. And even more so in the effort to make its aims achievable in the developing world.   

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