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FEATURE: Sex, gender, social change: Cambodian tackles taboos

AFP, PHNOM PENH

Blogger Catherine Harry records a video in her studio in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on May 22.

Photo: AFP

Sex toys, infidelity and penis size are generally hush, hush topics in conservative Cambodia, but not on a taboo-busting video blog called “A Dose of Cath” that unabashedly wrestles with the risque, drawing both applause and abuse in the patriarchal nation.

Hosted on Facebook, the show by a 23-year-old Cambodian woman tackles the finer points of sex education, women’s health and gender imbalances in a nation where the #MeToo movement has barely registered.

A recent episode on a well-known 19th-century Cambodian poem that used to be taught in schools and advises women not to laugh too loudly gained nearly 350,000 views.

The videos feature Catherine Harry, the pen name of the self-described feminist who featured in Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” list of outstanding leaders and entrepreneurs in Asia this year.

Having ditched her birth name more than 10 years ago, Harry is following in the footsteps of other Cambodian writers and media personalities turning to blogs and social media to make a name for themselves, but few have waded so deeply into the sensitive social issues that Harry confronts in short no-frills monologues filmed in her Phnom Penh apartment.

“What I expect to get from what I’m doing, from my videos, is to start a conversation, because the topics that I talk about, people don’t really talk about,” Harry said.

Those include premarital sex, whether to watch porn in a relationship, cervical cancer and sexual assault.

Statistics point to an urgent need for such conversations in a kingdom where one in five Cambodian men surveyed as part of a 2014 UN study admitted to having committed rape.

Harry has shared her own #MeToo experiences to help spur debate, but said those who speak out in Cambodia face victim-blaming or even violence.

“If a woman talks about her experiences of sexual assault or sexual harassment, she will be rejected by society, by her family, her friends,” she said.

While 65 percent of all businesses in Cambodia are run by women, the nation’s major political and financial institutions are still male-dominated.

Cambodian Prime Minster Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than three decades, has tried to court the youth through his own Facebook page.

He also dispenses advice to women on how to live, telling female garment workers on May 23 that it was better to have only one partner so “there is no worry about AIDS.”

“This is a message to youth to do good things,” he said in his remarks broadcast on Facebook.

The prime minister is set for a landslide victory in general elections next month after backing a crackdown on the opposition.

Harry, who studies mass media at Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh, started the “vlog” in early 2016 and it is now a full-time job, monetized through product placements for skin care companies and a brand of condoms.

“I don’t want everyone to agree with me, but I want people to start questioning society,” she said.

Raymond Leos, one of her professors, brings up Harry when discussing a wider trend of students moving beyond traditional career paths and family expectations.

“They’re very technologically savvy, they’re very sophisticated and they’re very independent in their thinking,” Leos said.

“A Dose of Cath” has found a ready audience in a nation where one third of the 15 million population is under 30 and smartphone usage has more than doubled over the past five years, helping her amass more than 200,000 followers.

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