I am an American public health professor working with a research institute in Cambodia. We study how to improve access to health services for hard-to-reach populations, such as female entertainment workers.
At the end of my last trip to Cambodia, my tuk-tuk driver took me down street 2005, near the military base, on my way to the airport. It was late in the evening and I was glad to take in the fresh air, the sights and smells of Phnom Penh nights before leaving for home. As we sped down the long, straight road, we passed KTV shops –small karaoke bars that offer songs and sex for pay –one after another, for miles. Shop after shop lit up in the night, eight or ten women sitting on couches chatting, their children playing at their feet.
At a stoplight, I watched as a customer on a motorbike approached one KTV. All the women stood up as the manager chatted with the customer. The customer pointed to his pick, and the two went into a karaoke room in the back, leaving the chosen woman’s toddler with coworkers out front.
I had my own toddlers at home, who I was aching to see. Their lives are different from the toddlers on street 2005. In my suburban home, I try to have them fed and in bed by 8 pm. Being outside at night past their bedtime is an exciting event in their lives. I get to fill our home with developmentally appropriate toys, I limit their screen time, and I hide vegetables in their smoothies. I get to protect them from the harsher realities of the world. What a privilege.
The women at the KTVs are making the best decisions for their kids, too. They are making difficult choices among limited options.
Since the pandemic, I’ve been working remotely, with my kids at home. But for the women on street 2005, their already-limited options are cut off during the country-wide shutdowns. I wonder, what do they do, when the KTVs close? Where do the toddlers sleep and play, if their mothers have to break curfew to work in the parks at night, risking arrest to feed themselves and their children?