One in front of the other, 31 young women aged 17 to 25 are lined up in the central Phnom Penh restaurant. Several hop about on alternate feet. “Hurry up,” they whisper to the girls in front. “Be as quick as you can – I’ve got to go.” Others are quieter. They cross their arms over their rib cages and stare at the floor, waiting their turn to take a pregnancy test from their prospective employer’s outstretched hands and disappear into the toilet, before handing it back to publicly share the results. Whether or not two blue lines appear dictates whether they’re pregnant – and whether or not they’ve got a new job.
“I’d never had sex before, but I was so scared,” Ya Aha, 19, tells me later, as we sit downstairs under the watchful gaze of her new boss. “It sounds silly, but I started wondering about all the things that could have happened to make me pregnant by mistake anyway. My family is from a really poor community on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and I had to find work, or we wouldn’t be able to eat. If the test had come back positive, I....” She blinks. “Well, I’d have to get rid of the baby, obviously.”
In a positive post-Weinstein era of Hashtag-Me-Too and Times Up badges, it can be easy to feel like women in 2018 are united in the fight to end workplace harassment and professional inequality. We’re in it together, we declare, as we rightfully protest the pay gap that appears to be widening before our eyes. We’re speaking up and the world is finally listening to us.
Yet, millions of women in many countries around the world aren’t aware of these campaigns. Largely because they’re still being forgotten by them.
Take Cambodia, for example, where nearly one in three female garment-factory employees have experienced sexual harassment within the past 12 months and women are subject to a gender pay gap of approximately 27 per cent (according to a 2014 Asian Development Bank study).
Now, The Pool can reveal women in Cambodia are being exposed to another form of workplace misogyny altogether – one not only affecting their job prospects but threatening their physical health and reproductive rights. Here, employing a pregnant woman in a café, restaurant or bar is thought to be bad luck – capable of driving away customers, and affecting business success to such an extent that managers believe profit margins are sure to fall and the number of people who’ll stop by to complain of food poisoning over the next month is certain to climb.
Dr Phan Sothennith, centre manager for reproductive-health NGO Marie Stopes (Photo: Francesco Brembati)
“I make every waitress I hire take a pregnancy test as soon as she’s passed the interview,” says Choung Chumsochiva, who manages the Happy Family restaurant in Siem Reap. “They then take the tests together every fortnight after that, to make sure nothing changes regarding their…” he pauses “…situation.” Many of the girls he employs are teenagers. “It’s too much of a risk for me to leave it up to them. If they get pregnant and don’t want an abortion, then they can wait until they give birth and then re-apply to work with us again in the future.” Whether he’s as likely to employ a young mother he declines to say.
Dr Phan Sothennith, centre manager for the reproductive-health NGO Marie Stopes’ Siem Reap clinic, says that many waitresses frequent his centre. “We see many of the same women come back time and time again,” he explains from his blue- and white-painted office on the outskirts of the city. “Culturally, there is very little knowledge about contraception and pregnancy prevention in Cambodia, so girls will come for abortions every couple of months. When we counsel them to find out why they believe this is the right choice for them, they reveal they’ve been told they’ll lose their jobs if they keep the child.”
The idea of an abortion scared me, but my boss didn’t give me a choice. He said I had a week to sort my problem out or that was it
Speaking from her home on the edge of Phnom Penh, Kung Sreypich, 16, couldn’t afford to visit a Marie Stopes clinic. Instead, she had her abortion in an abandoned hut in the middle of the jungle, where nobody could see her bleed. “The idea of an abortion scared me, but my boss didn’t give me a choice. He said I had a week to sort my problem out, or that was it.” Sreypich’s younger sister, ChinChin, is nine years old and often goes two days at a time without food. “If I kept the baby, I would lose my job and there would be one more mouth to feed. Everything would be worse for everyone.”
“If this behaviour was taking place in every industry across the country, then I like to think there would be regulations in place to end this practise,” says Ros Sopheap, executive director of the NGO Gender And Development For Cambodia. “But because it’s largely limited to the hospitality sector, then employers believe they can get away with it. But it’s absolutely sexist, and very dangerous. It doesn’t just harm women’s economic prospects – it risks their health as well.”
Back in the centre of the city, Aha is preparing for her first waitressing shift. “I feel so lucky to have this job,” she says. “I can’t read or write and my English is very bad, so not many people will employ me. So, if my boss says I need to take a pregnancy test to earn money, then who am I to say no?”
This reporting is part of the Crying Hunger project and was supported by the European Journalism Centre