“You are so beautiful, that turns me on.’’ “Your boobs are so big.” “How would it feel to spend a night with you?” These are the kind of words Tharith used to hear on a regular basis when she was at work.
Tharith moved to Phnom Penh to find work in a factory when she was just 18. She was young
and inexperienced; she didn’t know what to do when she was sexually harassed by her co-workers.
“Back then, I could not talk about it as I was shy,” she recalls. “It was hard for me to speak about my experience. There was no one solving the problem, so I didn’t who to talk to.”
Tharith is not alone in feeling like this. “People often don’t dare to talk about what is happening to them because they are afraid that others will laugh at the stories. They feel embarrassed talking about that,” she says. Sarath, who works at the same factory, agrees: “I think because the victims do not dare to speak out, that's why the problems continue to happen. Women think there is no one supporting them to reveal their story.”
It wasn’t just inappropriate words which made Tharith feel uncomfortable; she was also physically harassed. Once when she was working alone at the end of the day, a man put his arms around her from behind and proceeded to touch her. Tharith pushed him off and ran away.
These experiences scared Tharith and she didn’t know what to do. She thought about not going back to work, but needed to keep her employment to earn money.
CARE believes that women should be able to earn income without fearing for their safety in this way. Working in collaboration with HR managers from a number of factories, CARE developed practical ways for factories to prevent such things from happening to the women they employ.
An important part of this is making sure women are not placed in a situation where they don’t know who to talk to. Factories CARE works with have been creating sexual harassment committees and training workers so they know who to go to if they want to report that something has happened to them. Women like Tharith can speak out without being embarrassed, knowing that their story will be kept confidential.
Sarath wants everyone to more supportive of people who have experienced sexual harassment. She believes that when people speak up, it tells everyone that this behaviour is not acceptable. “I want people who judge or blame to stop doing this and help women speak up. Supporting people to do this is a way of going out to tell other people to look at their behaviour and change it.”
Changing deep-seated attitudes takes time, but Sarath says she is starting to see at change in her factory. “The situation at the factory has changed a lot. From my observation, incidents of verbal harassment are reduced and inappropriate behaviour like men touching women’s butts are not happening much anymore.” Tharith agrees: “When the factory started to work on a solution, there were fewer cases [of sexual harassment] happening.”
CARE continues to work with HR managers in Cambodia to encourage more factories to take steps to protect their workers and ensure women can work in an environment where they can speak up without fear.
CARE’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Package was developed with support from the Australian Government and the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women. It continues to reach more factories in Cambodia with support from the Levi Strauss Foundation and the Australian Government. This is also being adapted for other contexts in the Mekong region.