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CAMBODIA: Siem Reap's "Beer Girls" yet to be educated about HIV-AIDS

Presenter/Interviewer: Tricia Fitzgerald.
Speakers: Professor Ian Lubek of the University of Guelph in Canada.

Cambodia's northern city of Siem Reap, the home of the famed Angkor Wat temples, is attracting almost a quarter of a million tourists a year, but apparently many of them are not coming for a spiritual or cultural experience. The pulling power of the temples is being eclisped by a booming sex tourism industry. As the tourists pour in, more and more bars and brothels are being set up in Siem Reap, the town closest to the temples, and the tourist mecca now has an HIV/AIDS rate, which is more than five times higher than the national average.

FITZGERALD: The Angkor Wat temples are Cambodia's most precious cultural asset and they are drawing international tourists at a rapidly increasing rate.

The growth is a boost for Cambodia's sagging economy and an optomistic Tourism Ministry is planning for a four-fold increase over the next four years.

That dream could be totally destroyed, however, with new HIV/AIDS research showing Siem Reap, the host city for Angkor Wat, has an HIV/AIDS rate which is more than five times the size of the national average of three to four percent.

Professor Ian Lubek, of the University of Guelph in Canada, has been carrying out HIV/AIDs research at the Angkor Wat temples.

He says the infection rate is soaring because almost a quarter of travellers are going there as sex tourists rather than to take in the beauty of the temples.

LUBEK: "Of about 250,000, it's estimated that about 22% - this is a government Ministry of Tourism survey of about a eyar ago I believe - that about 22% may be sexual tourists - who used to go to Thailand. But because Thailand got fairly well organised in terms of women there demanding about 100% condom compliance.

"There are still a number of sexual tourists who decide they want to have very young women believing that's there's less danger of HIV-AIDS, or virgins, and are willing to pay up to $US1,000 for virgins.

"There is some internet publicity given to the fact that there are lots of brothels and beautiful women in the entertainment some of whom can be pursuaded to have sex for money."

FITZGERALD: Siem Reap's commercial sex workers have been the hardest hit, with 44 percent or almost half of them now infected with HIV/AIDS.

They are suffering partly because they live in a rural area, far from the AIDS prevention campaigns run in Phnom Penh by numerous development agencies.

But Professor Lubek is more concerned about married women and beer girls women in the high-risk entertainment industry, who have been missing out on the AIDS education programs.

They are showing HIV/AIDS rates as high as 23 percent.

LUBEK: "The beer girls and the married women are two groups that have not yet been reached. I'm sure that they will be atrgetted but in terms of priorities and the amount of resources available to the government either through NGO contributions or through government funds, has not permitted them to begin yet at that outreach."

FITZGERALD: The so-called beer girls are attractively dressed young women who sell beer for major companies at bars and nightclubs.

Their numbers have been increasingly rapidly along with the tourism boom, but as they are not officially recognised as sex workers, they have been ignored as a high risk group.

LUBEK: "The entertainment are being paid to work in a bar, so they're paid usually $2 per day is about average and they have a quota of beer or wine that they must sell each day or each month. So they usually find that amount is not sufficient and usually have to accept, at least several times a month, propositions for sex after work."

FITZGERALD: Professor Lubek says the international beer companies like Budweiser, Becks, Tiger, Stella Atois, Heinekin, Labbatt, Fosters and Victoria Bitter, are not doing enough to protect their top Cambodian sales women.

LUBEK: "Some of the companies have tried to do once a year a sort of a education day. The beer girls do need some education without necessarily the beer companies admitting they are part of marketing of sex."

FITZGERALD: What sort of a message have you got for the companies about the health and safety of these workers?

LUBEK: Just changing the rate of pay from $2 per day to $6 per day would completely eliminate the need for any sexual activity at all - that is all women could say no because it is enough, they just wouldn't have to engage in risky sex."

12/04/2002 Celebrating 50 years of broadcasting, Radio Australia is an independent and trusted source of information about Australia, Asia and the Pacific.