Empowering Cambodia's Women in the Fight against HIV

A community-based outreach program works to prevent the spread of HIV along a major transport route in northwestern Cambodia.

At 22, Neary (not her real name) is already a veteran of Oddar Meanchey’s entertainment scene. The second of six children, she supports her parents and siblings by working in a karaoke bar in the Chuk Meas area.

Neary used to work at a garments factory, but her meagre income was not enough to support her family’s needs. Two years ago, her friends introduced her to entertainment work.

 

When she started working at the karaoke bar, Neary was invited by WOMEN, a community-based organization in Cambodia, to join their free HIV prevention and reproductive health talks. Young and uneducated, Neary did not see the need to go to the talks at first. Later, after receiving some counselling from an outreach worker, she decided to attend the meetings regularly.

The number of entertainment workers in Oddar Meanchey is increasing as this poor province in Cambodia’s northwest region becomes more developed and economic activities along the border with Thailand increase. Improved roads have also facilitated the movement of goods and people across borders.

Migration, Mobility, and HIV

Unfortunately, migration, mobility, and the spread of HIV are closely linked. Increases in HIV prevalence have been observed along major transport routes, in cross-border areas, and in regions experiencing high seasonal and long-term population mobility.

View infographic in higher resolution.

Together with its investments in infrastructure, ADB is supporting HIV prevention and anti-human trafficking programs in Cambodia and other countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion, one of the world’s fastest-growing subregions in economic development. This includes a community-based outreach program impemented by WOMEN in Oddar Meanchey with assistance from the Government of Australia.

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) targets the immune system and weakens people's resistance against infections and some types of cancer. The deadly disease is spread through high-risk behaviors, such as unprotected sex, and the sharing of contaminated needles by drug users. HIV strikes hardest where poverty and gender inequality are pervasive.

Information campaign

Through outreach programs in the community, such as regular community forums and radio broadcasts, WOMEN reached the most at-risk people in the area, including entertainment workers and their customers and those working in beer gardens and casinos. Project staff taught people about HIV prevention and reproductive health, distributed condoms and hygiene products, and referred them to health care centers.

“The income of the families in the area is low. The education level of the girls, their parents, and the community is low”

- Nhick Sophy, WOMEN project manager

The project also advocated for HIV and trafficking prevention services and coordinated with government partners at the provincial, district, and commune levels.

“This is very challenging work,” said project manager Nhick Sophy, who has worked for WOMEN since 2006. Even though they face many risks, more women are choosing to work at the karaoke bars and beer gardens.

“The income of the families in the area is low. The education level of the girls, their parents, and the community is low,” she said.

The services that the project provides are critical to entertainment workers. WOMEN is the only organization working on this kind of project in the province.

Now, Neary encourages other women to attend the meetings organized by WOMEN. “I encourage many girls to come to the talks, especially where I live and where I work,” she said. “The staff always provides counselling and health care to the girls for free.”

But before long, Neary hopes to save enough money to leave this kind of work behind and follow her dream of running her own business. “I want to open a store where I will sell make up and cosmetics,” she said.