Phat Sreytouch, a former beer promoter, recalls being the constant subject of harassment from the men she served in beer gardens, many who felt they were within their rights to touch her and her colleagues.
“It happened very often at entertainment venues,” she said.
One day, Ms. Sreytouch said, she decided to take a stand, and became a committee member of the Solidarity Association of Beer Promoters in Cambodia.
“Seven years ago, I began advocating for women, because I saw with my own eyes the abuse,” she said. The mission has since become a full-time occupation.
But unwanted sexual attention or, worse, violence is not only directed at entertainment workers.
According to a U.N. study released in late 2013, one in five of the more than 1,800 Cambodian men surveyed admitted to having raped a woman, while 34 percent admitted to committing physical or sexual violence against a woman. Gang rape was singled out as a particular problem in the country compared to others in the Asia-Pacific region.
It also found that 27.8 percent of men and 32.8 percent of women surveyed thought “there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten.”
In a new initiative aimed at ending such attitudes and behavior using technology, Ms. Sreytouch and two other female activists—ActionAid program officer Bunn Rachana and blogger Sum Dany—are set to begin working with developers to create mobile applications that help protect women.
The trio are recipients of the VXW Award, an initiative of the Asia Foundation that is being funded by U.K. Aid, which was launched in Phnom Penh on Friday.
While Ms. Dany plans to create a system that targets domestic violence, Ms. Sreytouch wants to help women in the food and service sectors to increase their knowledge of their rights, and the assistance available to them. Ms. Rachana will focus on safety in public urban areas.
“Safety for women in the public space, it’s still a very big concern,” Ms. Rachana said.
“It’s still in the process, but I think we will try to have some sort of technology that is applicable with the smartphone and is affordable and accessible to women so they can have some sort of emergency notification system when they feel unsafe in public space,” she said.
The project is designed to harness the growing popularity of smartphones and Internet usage among Cambodians—particularly young men and women who are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to social media, apps and online trends.
According to a report released by the Asia Foundation in October, 93.7 percent of Cambodians own a mobile phone, and smartphone penetration grew by 30 percent over a 12-month period. The study found that 38.6 percent of urban respondents and 20.7 percent of the rural population have smartphones—and many of them are using these to access the Internet.
Although Asia Foundation program officer Erin Bourgois said the activists want to reach women in rural areas—pointing out that there is often at least one smartphone in a family or village—she admitted the initiative is most likely to reach urban youth.
“But it’s growing, we know that smartphone use is growing. To own a computer, to have Internet in your home, is much more costly than having a smartphone, so we see this as an area where we can hopefully expand,” Ms. Bourgois said.
The award bestowed upon the three women on Friday is just the first stage of the project. Their apps—which will be free and available in Khmer—are due to be rolled out as early as March before a new round of activists are selected to work on similar apps.
And it is hoped that at least one young man will step forward to help find solutions to stop violence against women.
“It’s hard to find Cambodian men that really have been working on violence against women prevention and so that’s something we’re hoping to cultivate, some interest and awareness around this,” Ms. Bourgois said.
For now, though, the three women at the center of this initiative are concentrating on providing help to other women, and reshaping their views on gender in a culture that has long placed men above women.
“If [women] face sexual harassment, they should be strong,” Ms. Sreytouch said on Friday, to applause from the audience gathered at the launch.
“From today, they should be strong.”