Developing a New Cambodian NGO

Posted on by Mac Hathaway


by Mac Hathaway

As the director of the Hathaway Gender Consultancy Ltd., I work closely with international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide empirical research on issues related to gender.

The efforts of the NGO community in dealing with gender-issues in Cambodia have been laudable. Through strengthening education, providing cultural training, and fostering the mainstreaming of gender in society at large, it has been remarkably successful in empowering women and overthrowing the hegemonic regime of patriarchy in Cambodia.

Yet, in researching a recent article, – Performative Genders, Perverse Desires: a Bio-History of Cambodia’s Shappic Subculture? (Asian Womens Studies Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 17, Spring 2006), I went in-depth into the Sapphic love affairs that occur between hostesses* sharing cramped quarters in the nation?s capital and found that there are definite lacunae in Cambodia?s gender work program.

While I was in close contact with these hostesses, I got an insider’s view of their often tumultuous relationships with Western men. I decided to attempt to chart the complex geography of these cross-cultural love affairs by conducting in-depth, open-ended qualitative interviews with twenty-six such men. In the process of this research, I was confronted with egregious examples of previously overlooked gender-based violence.

I have come to believe that Western men in relationships with hostesses are locked in a dark closet of fear and shame, and it is the duty of the international community to recognise this issue and rescue them from continued gender-based violence. Therefore, this month I have been writing proposals, meeting with government officials, and securing funding from the World Bank and Asia Development Bank (ADB) to establish a new gender-based organisation.

Few people are truly aware of the nature and extent of gender-based violence perpetrated against Western men by hostesses in Cambodia. However, recent research has shown that this disturbing trend has increased by twenty-two percent in the past five years and six percent in the past year alone (Hathaway, de Sade, and von Krafft-Ebbing, 2006). Clearly, something needs to be done, not only to prevent this violence from occurring, but also to help men deal with the trauma and bring it to the attention of society.

The statistics cited above correspond to a change in the socio-demographics of Phnom Penh’s nightlife scene. Along with an influx of visitors from Thailand, renowned for attracting desperate white men who spend all their money on hostesses before jumping from condominiums or getting dragged into the jungle by axe-wielding cousins of hostesses, there has also been an increase in the number of hostess bars in the capital over the years.

Whereas other kinds of bars are often blamed for much of the petty theft suffered by Western men, the hostess sub-culture seems to breed gender-based violence. This problem is compounded by the social realities of the hostess bar environment. For example, the financial incentives provided by ?ladydrinks? encourage hostesses to consume large quantities of alcohol, and studies show that bargirls are fifty-six percent more likely to perpetrate gender-based violence while intoxicated (Hathaway and Kinsey, 2005).

There is a common misconception that attacks against men by hostesses seldom result in serious physical injury. Research comparing the relative muscle density in the arms of hostesses and ordinary women, however, has revealed that hostesses, while slightly less powerful than rice planters, have a twenty-one percent advantage over ordinary urban women. This has been attributed to the rigors of performing frequent neck massages on patrons (Hathaway, 2003). The most troubling injuries, however, are not even physical. They are psychological.

In the course of my research, I have amassed an index of the most commonly occurring types of gender-based violence using advanced statistical methods. The most prevalent form of abuse in the early stages of relationships is twisting of the nipples causing swelling and rawness. It is also common for hostesses to slap men?s buttocks causing serious bruising. More serious abuse has involved back passages being seriously damaged by the sudden insertion of pool cues. In rare cases, male members have been severed and flushed down toilets or fed to ducks.

With the establishment of this new NGO and the securing of significant funds from international donors, men in Phnom Penh will soon have access to a shelter (the “Jinja Centre”) where they can feel secure and receive professional counselling and legal advice; there will be a vigorous awareness-raising campaign to educate society by taking out advertisements on television, in magazines, and on the Internet; we will continue to conduct research, and publish the latest findings, in order to develop a more sophisticated theoretical framework in which to understand this form of gender-based violence; and, finally, we will lobby the government for changes to policy and legislation, consult with stakeholders at the grass-roots level, and build the capacity of local staff based on the outcomes of this research in order to ensure the end of this scourge to society.

* Note. The term – hostesses – has come under critical scrutiny by feminist scholars who see it as a linguistic fossilisation of patriarchal ideology. In the critical literature on the subject, therefore, these women are sometimes referred to as ‘alcohol-related establishment-employed women? (AREEWs). In this article, I have chosen the shorter term for the sake of easy readability. The reader should be aware, however, that it is used in invisible inverted commas in order to signify its non-patriarchal connotativeness.

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