On July 14, 2012, U.S. Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues, Melanne Verveer, made a special visit to the SMARTgirl project in Cambodia, a USAID PRASIT project initiative, led by FHI 360. SMARTgirl aims to prevent and mitigate the impact of HIV and improve the sexual and reproductive health of entertainment workers, many of whom are sex workers. There are an estimated 35,000 entertainment workers in Cambodia, working at night clubs, bars, massage parlors, karaoke clubs (KTV), restaurants, beer gardens, as well as on the street. Prevalence of HIV is as high as 14 percent, among some groups of entertainment workers.
SMARTgirl stands apart from other programming among entertainment workers in Cambodia because of its positive, non-stigmatizing approach. It combines evidence-based interventions with the strong SMARTgirl brand, which empowers women to protect their health and well-being. SMARTgirl reaches nearly half of all EWs in Cambodia in their workplace, because it treats them respectfully, recognizes what is important to them and improves health-seeking behavior by raising self-esteem.
SMARTgirl is one of a number of projects that validates what the international community and national leaders have been emphasizing for more than a decade— that empowering women and girls are vital components of human development. Since coming into office, U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, as well as Ambassador Verveer, have continually underscored the importance of integrating these issues into Department of State foreign policy objectives.
During Secretary Clinton’s recent ASEAN development meeting in Phnom Penh, she was influential in integrating gender equality and women’s empowerment into the Lower Mekong Initiative agenda. In a statement, she emphasized the importance of reproductive rights for achieving gender equality; an area that the innovative FHI 360 SMARTgirl program has been integrating into its HIV mitigation program:
“Reproductive rights are among the most basic of human rights. … Millions of women and young people in developing countries don’t have access to information to plan their family. They don’t have health services and modern methods of contraception. This is not only a violation of their right…it’s also a question of equity as women everywhere should have the same ability to determine this fundamental part of their lives.”
As this short video on SMARTgirl reveals, the women in the program feel inspired, often for the first time. They see themselves as “smart girls”– women who are empowered to change their lives, and educate others about health issues and rights.
Says Kheng, “Before I became a SMARTgirl leader, I used to face issues on my own, … but we have the right to help each other and we have to participate in the community where we live.”
Read more stories from participants in FHI 360’s SMARTgirl program.