Pouring gasoline on fire
The population of Cambodia has faced many hardships since the 60s, from the Vietnam War that extended into this country, the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, to the widespread famine during the Khmer regime. By 1999, Cambodia was facing another affliction, the spread of HIV/AIDS among its people.
During the explosion of AIDS cases in Cambodia in the 90s, the group most vulnerable to HIV was the one comprised of smiling and illiterate beer girls that, wearing skimpy clothes provided by international beer companies such as Heineken, Budweiser and Carlsberg, worked in Cambodian bars enticing male customers into buying beer. As a corollary, the unprotected sex between beer girls and patrons was rapidly increasing the number of HIV cases in Cambodia in those years.
On his way to Australia in 1999, the psychology professor Ian Lubek stopped in Cambodia for sightseeing. While there, he learned about the HIV epidemic, the plight of the beer girls, and decided to act. Together with local health specialists, Lubek created educational programs, trained beer girls on how to prevent AIDS and took part in other outreach activities as well. Still, because most beer girls were unaware of their risk of HIV infection, only after one of them died that they realized their dire situation. They also understood that international beer companies did not care about them. Contacted by Lubek, who asked for help to buy antiretroviral drugs to treat the beer girls, brewers argued that they only used the beer girls’ services. As for employment benefits, Lubek should contact the bar owners who hired them.
As time passed by, Lubek received grants from the Elton John AIDS Foundation and was helped by his own students at the University of Guelph, in Canada. Fast-forwarding to 2016, a website devoted to the cause of the beer girls informs that the predicament of these workers has got slightly better. However, the beer companies still do not see themselves as part of the problem.
While it is sad to read accounts such as this, of the unethical and unequal intermingling of business interests with vulnerable groups of people such as the beer girls, I know that this is a perennial mixture in most societies.
The term ‘beer girls’ is a derogatory label for workers who promote beers at Cambodian bars. Like beer girls, there are car girls in the United States, using their bodies to boost sales at car shows, waiter girls in Canada, scantily clad and wearing high heels to attract male patrons to bars and restaurants, TV show girls in Brazil, barely wearing any clothes and dancing voluptuously to increase the show’s ratings. Unfortunately, the predicament of these Cambodian women is far bleaker when compared to the situation of their American, Canadian and Brazilian counterparts. These realities are part of the narrative that objectifies women for the sake of business interests. Sadly, without alternatives, many women end up falling into traps such as these.
One of the saddest aspects of the situation of the beer girls is the clear disregard of beer companies for ethical principles. These corporations neglect international business ethics and take refuge in the way that Cambodian men treat vulnerable Cambodian women. If it is not enough to flood the Cambodian market with foreign beer, let’s also profit from the denigrating and sexist way that women are treated in Cambodia. This is the message these beer companies seem to want to share with Cambodian and international people who learn about the ordeal of the beer girls.