Someone to listen to: A hotline for female entertainment workers in Cambodia

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Someone to Listen to: A Hotline for Female Entertainment Workers in Cambodia

This is one of a series of guest blog posts we are developing for various regions as part of the 16 days of Activism Against Gender Violence, a global campaign that runs from November 25 to December 10.

Unfortunately, gender-based violence (GBV) is a global issue that affects one in three women worldwide, and every community where the World Bank works includes women and girls who have experienced some form of sexual abuse or harassment.

In Cambodia, as in many parts of Asia, one common pathway to a livelihood for young women from poor families is to migrate to urban areas to earn a better wage to support their families. With poor wages, many young women seek better-paying jobs at entertainment venues such as beer gardens, massage parlors, and karaoke bars. In these roles, many women engage in entertainment work, which may include transactional sex. In 2019, the estimated number of these female entertainment workers (FEWs) in Cambodia was 70,000.

Female entertainment workers in Cambodia are frequently victims of gender-based violence associated with their occupation: 45% of FEWs report having experienced some types of GBV in the past six months and more than half report their clients as the main perpetrators. Violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified globally since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges for female entertainment workers in Cambodia, especially during the recent lockdown. Work dried up and in desperation, many worked covertly in entertainment establishments despite government mandates. As a result, they faced increased harassment by clients and law enforcement.

The daily worries made them more anxious and some even developed suicidal thoughts. But KHANA, a national public health organization in Cambodia, last month conducted a series of in-depth interviews and focus group discussions to better understand the concerns of the workers.

This initiative comes from a new project that will test the feasibility and effectiveness of the SMARTgirl Hotline that will provide 24-hour emotional support via WhatsApp to female entertainment workers in Cambodia who are gender-based violence survivors.

Funded by the World Bank’s Sexual Violence Research Initiative, the idea for a hotline emerged last year and has become more urgent due to COVID-19. The hotline will be staffed by trained peer outreach workers. The outreach workers will undergo intensive training on using crisis intervention, health education, and counseling skills. They will also identify and respond to red flags such as suicidal thoughts and refer survivors to services available to them.

In developing the hotline, KHANA presented participants with visual aids such as a comic strip of a young woman using the hotline after experiencing emotional and verbal abuse (see below).  They also provided a mock audio transcription of a hotline call between a young woman and a call line staff.

Comic strip showing how the hotline works
Comic strip of a young women’s experience using a chat-based hotline to get emotional support after experiencing verbal abuse from a client.

Hopes and challenges

During our conversations, the female entertainment workers opened up about their hopes and challenges, which will help better inform our responses—so we can meet their needs.

First, they said they have been hit hard by the pandemic. The impact of COVID-19 wasn’t the focus of our research, but we couldn’t avoid this topic in our interviews. These workers were earning less income because the entertainment venues were closed and many engaged in direct sex work through their networks or on the streets to offset their lack of income. Some received money from their family, whom they usually support. All of these challenges, including working covertly against government mandates, put immense psychological pressure on them.

Resilience in the face of adversity

Second, the female entertainment workers discussed how they were trying to cope with the challenges. They discussed healthy coping strategies, such as depending on friends or taking up meditation, and unhealthy coping strategies such as drinking. They reported asking and receiving emotional support from friends, family, and peers. Some have relied on service from local community-based organizations.

Words of hope

Third, when discussing the support hotline, the workers said they would prefer to call a trustworthy, nonjudgmental, anonymous person. A person who would console them, provide encouragement and practical solutions, career guidance, and use kind words to lift their moods and help them feel safe. They also want referrals, such as immediate help when experiencing violence or requiring medical attention.

Our next steps are to take these responses and use them to inform the development of the hotline’s technical aspects and staff training.  This hotline will be a portal for emotional support as well as a referral for health and gender-based violence support services.

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