Nary is a 24-year-old Cambodian garment-factory worker in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Her parents are rural fruit farmers, and, at age 17, she started working in the factory to support her family. She met her first boyfriend there. They fell in love, started having sex — in a country where premarital sex is quite taboo — and a few weeks later, she missed her period. When she told her boyfriend she was pregnant, he left her. Unaware of safe birth control and safe, legally available abortion methods, she bought an unknown pill from a shop a friend recommended. It left her in the hospital, heavily bleeding and in pain. She missed a week’s worth of wages. After another failed relationship and pregnancy scare, Nary reported feeling depressed and hopeless when she joined a program called CHAT! Contraception, which provides sexual-health education for young factory workers.
More than half a million young women work in Cambodia’s factories. Most are poor. Many have no more than a primary-school education. And a lot of them, like Nary, are vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies, increased rates of STDs, and unsafe abortions. It’s their first time away from home, when they form new relationships and begin their first sexual experiences.
CARE — one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations, where I serve as innovator-in-residence — launched Chat! Contraception to empower young women factory workers like Nary to make informed, healthy sexual choices.
The program uses a blend of soap-opera-style videos of Cambodian factory women facing critical sexual choices. Chat! delivers those videos through in-factory screenings and via mobile devices. It also facilitates trust-building sessions in the workplace, along with a mobile app that provides once-daily quiz questions with the opportunity to build points and raise your rank within the game.
The early results have been remarkable. So far, Chat! has reached 15,000 workers at factories serving big Western brands like Levi’s and Marks & Spencer. Rates of modern contraception use among sexually active factory workers have doubled, reaching nearly 50 percent. Unwanted pregnancies have declined, and women in the program report that their confidence in discussing contraception with their partners — and even in refusing sex altogether — has tripled.
I spoke with Maly Man and Julia Battle, co-founders of Chat!, who are based in Phnom Penh.
Tell me a bit about the typical female garment-factory employees you work with?
Most of the factory workers are women who typically move from their rural villages when they are still teenagers to find work. The average age of workers in the factories is around 27. They come here with little education, limited literacy, no sexual-health knowledge. And what they’ve learned, they hear through the grapevine of their friends in the factory — who also may be misinformed.
Around 50 percent of women in the factories report being sexually active, but it is hard to know how many who are not married are willing to report having sex. There is a huge stigma around it — that’s part of why we wanted to create safe online and offline spaces for learning and conversations.
What does a typical workday look like for the women in the program? How do they have time to participate?
The typical workday in the factory is 7 a.m. until 4 p.m., with a lunch break, six days per week. But whenever possible, most of the women will add an overtime session from 4 to 6 p.m. The minimum wage in Cambodia is U.S. $153 per month. If they always work those overtime hours, they can come closer to U.S. $200 per month. Some of the women are living in small individual rooms in boardinghouses that are walking distance from the factories. A lot of women — especially those with husbands and kids — live farther away so they can have more space. There are these big trucks that pick up women along the route to the factories. With all the traffic, maybe you wake up at 5 a.m., commute for 90 minutes each way, and get back home around 8 p.m.