Bringing hope to Cambodia’s women beer sellers

Staffordshire University Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Mental Health, Dr Helen Lee, is working as part of an international team of social science researchers, health workers, educators and journalists, to reduce workplace health risks and improve the quality of life of women beer sellers in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Since joining the Beer Sellers project, Dr Lee has worked as a research consultant for Cambodian NGO, SiRCHESI (Siem Reap, Citizens for Health, Education and Social Issues).

Most recently, she has taken the lead role in producing a co-authored report for publication in the Journal of Health Psychology, entitled: ‘Creating new career pathways to reduce poverty, illiteracy and health risks, while transforming and empowering Cambodian women’s lives.’ 

Her report centres on the evaluation of a two-year hotel-skills apprenticeship programme that has been introduced to provide better opportunities for those women who would otherwise resort to selling beer to make a living in Siem Reap.

“I first became involved in the Beer Sellers project after meeting Project Director, Professor Ian Lubek, of the University of Guelph, Toronto, at a conference on Critical Psychology in 2003,” comments Dr Lee. “Shocked to hear the plight of these women, I felt compelled to get involved.”

High prevalence of HIV/AIDS

“The Beer Sellers project initially set out to examine the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS among the female beer-selling community in Siem Reap,” adds Dr Lee. “Over the years, however, it has grown to address several key aims, namely: reducing workplace health risks, developing a peer-educator programme, raising public and brewer awareness and introducing the two-year Hotel Apprenticeship Programme.”

Alcohol-related illnesses

“Back in 2003,” she continues, “the incidence of HIV/AIDS amid beer sellers was an astonishing 20%. This was largely due to the fact that, as their earnings equated to about half the amount needed to support their families, around 50% became indirect sex workers to supplement their income. The practice of drinking with customers to reach beer sales quotas was also commonplace, meaning condom use was low and the risk of alcohol-related illness was high. As a further complication, beer sellers with HIV/AIDS could not afford life-prolonging anti-viral medication.”

Implementing change

Through a programme of participatory action research, the Beer Sellers project has worked in collaboration with health workers in Siem Reap to better understand the causes of the beer sellers’ situation and to bring about change.

Reaching more than 8,700 people

Project achievements to-date include the creation of a peer-educator programme that is centred on HIV/AIDS prevention and has already reached in excess of 8,700 people. Considerable efforts have also been made to raise both public and brewer awareness and two major brewers have established a Beer Sellers’ Code of Conduct and a ‘Selling Beer Safely’ programme to address some health concerns.

Hotel Apprenticeships

Via the introduction of the Hotel Apprenticeship Programme (HAP) – a scheme providing education on health risks and related behaviours, Khmer literacy, English and hotel industry skills training - progress is being made to provide beer sellers with the necessary skills to secure work that offers a living wage. To-date, 30 former beer sellers have benefited from HAP training.

Raising awareness

Comments Dr Lee, “Our evaluation demonstrates that the Beer Sellers programme is raising awareness about health-related concerns, HIV/AIDS and the risks of consuming unsafe quantities of alcohol. In addition to this, it is providing former beer sellers with the opportunity to engage in healthier employment by working in the hotel industry. The chance to earn a living wage, and the associated financial security, has meant that women beer sellers do not need to supplement their income through sex work. Finally, literacy in both Khmer and English, coupled to hotel industry skills training, has provided the women with a sense of empowerment as they look towards securing more valued positions within the local community.” 

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