For 34-year-old Sorphoan, harassment is just part of the job during her 12 p.m. to 1 a.m. shifts at a local KTV joint. On an average night, she gets harassed, catcalled and molested by men visiting the karaoke room.
“They asked me to sleep with them, but I said no,” Sorphoan said, tears running down her face. “Then they slapped me, and came to touch my breasts.” When she complained to her manager, he scolded her for not serving the customers.
A group of six NGOs known as the Safe Cities Coalition released a “Charter to End Violence Against Women in Cambodia” on Sunday to represent the interests of female workers such as Sorphoan, who attended the charter’s launch but would only speak if her last name was withheld, out of fear for her safety.
The charter aims to end violence against female workers by elevating the voices of the workers themselves. It lists demands grouped in 10 categories, including transportation, housing and employment.
“Our main goals are to raise the voices of women and their needs to the public and to the authorities and government because they are the ones who should be providing services to these women,” said Khourn Chantevy, a women’s rights team leader at ActionAid Cambodia.
The coalition plans to submit the charter to local authorities so they can better serve half the population.
“We want to tell the government: ‘This is what women want and this is who these women are,’” Ms. Chantevy said.
Sorphoan’s experience is not rare among Cambodian women.
On her way home after work every day, 29-year-old Sopheak said she can barely see what’s in front of her on the dark street, but she can hear men’s voices taunting her. A garment factory worker in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, Sopheak, who also insisted that only her first name be published, said she always leaves work at about 10 p.m. when the streetlights have already been turned off.
“The city can be a wonderful place to live,” said Hun Boramey, ActionAid’s country director, at the charter’s launch event on Sunday. “But it can also be dangerous place, especially for women.”
Em Sopheavy, team leader of the women’s affairs committee in the well-known sex work hotspot Svay Pak commune in Russei Keo district, called for collaboration from male officials such as police officers to help stop violence against women.
“It is very important for women to raise their concerns, because they have a lot of mistreatment from their male colleagues and bosses,” Ms. Sopheavy said. “As a representative of a local authority, I am going to bring these issues to discuss and forward them to a higher level, hoping to find a better solution.”
Ouk Chandara, a transgender sex worker, said she hopes the charter will put pressure on authorities to act. “I hope they hear our concerns as sex workers,” said 44-year-old Ms. Chandara, a member of the Women’s Network for Unity, which works to end discrimination against sex workers in the city.
The women’s charter represents diversity, Ms. Chantevy said, from government factory workers to sex workers and LGBTQ groups seeking the legalization of same-sex marriage.
“These are the most marginalized groups. They have been discriminated against not only by society but by the law.” Ms. Chantevy said. “If we don’t raise their voices, their voices are not gonna be heard.”