Sokunny Muth is a senior technical officer with FHI 360 in Cambodia and is responsible for the SMARTgirl program, which works with sex workers.

Siem Reap is in the north of Cambodia, and the nearest city to the historical wonder of the vast, carved stone temples of Angkor Wat. The temples are covered in intricate images of life from 800 years ago. Today, Siem Reap bustles with modern life, including a thriving sex industry. A recent law prohibits brothels, so instead, young Cambodian sex workers work in the many beer gardens, karaoke clubs, and massage parlors.

As the electricity cut out – and the ceiling fan with it – the natural Cambodian heat reasserted itself once again. I sat with one of our frequent visitors, as one of the SMARTgirl team used a presentation to recount the fictional life of how a young woman falls into sex work, and the dangers she then encounters. Through sessions like these, SMARTgirl helps these young women, euphemistically called “entertainment workers,” to understand more about HIV, other STIs, and contraception.

Across the country, SMARTgirl assists more than 12,000 entertainment workers every quarter, equating to around 1 in 3 of the nation’s sex workers. SMARTgirl clubs provide an opportunity for young women to take a few hours of respite while staff and peer educators offer advice on health and non-health services, such as social safety net protection, occupational training, treatment for drug use, and support for those who encounter gender-based violence.  Recently SMARTgirl piloted a government initiative to offer FASTest, an HIV rapid test, in SMARTgirl clubs, which improves access and reduces the stigma of attending a government health center.

As the electricity came back on, and the fan spun back to life, we had a chance to talk with 13 women from local massage parlors, karaoke clubs, and beer gardens.  In just a few hours they would be back in make-up, high heels, and short dresses. In the meantime, they were relaxing, chatting, and telling our guest more about the realities of life for them.

“How does the SMARTgirl program help you?” she asked, regaining her composure as the breeze from the fan caught her glistening face.

 A woman who works at a massage parlor responded with smiling face, “Well, I like SMARTgirl. Before I met SMARTgirl I didn’t know about HIV, STIs, or contraception or what that meant to me. Now I know what they are. I can get free STI and HIV testing and now I know where to find out about family planning at clinic.”

Another woman who is working at a beer garden said that she’d been for an HIV test twice and STI screening several times. “In addition I also got information about reproductive health and family planning. These services I never got before I knew the SMARTgirl team and even when I talked to others about it.” 

A third woman from a karaoke club added, “Before, I didn’t dare to say ‘no’ to a client that I didn’t want, but SMARTgirl taught me brilliant negotiation skills. Now I know about legal services that I should talk to if I have any problem.”

At the end of the visit, my guest was clearly moved by what she heard. “I am proud of seeing you all here. You are all very beautiful and brave. All of you are really SMARTgirls!” 

To learn more about FHI 360’s SMARTgirl program, read our previous blog entry, “Accelerating the Global Health Initiative: Cambodia’s HIV/AIDS Efforts Put Women in the Driver’s Seat

To learn more about working with young people who sell sex, take part in our e-forum, Lives at Stake: Meeting the Needs of Young People Most at Risk of HIV, July 26 through July 28, 2011, or join the conversation on Twitter #IYWGMAR.