Making Cambodia a safe place for women and girls

Making Cambodia a safe place for women and girls

I recently completed a grant application after working on it for a month. When I went to submit it, I discovered I had gone five times over the word limit in some sections. Those of you who have had to cut down essays can relate. How difficult is it to cut your work? You become attached to the words like they are your baby, and it is like choosing your favourite child.

Just now I was listening to an incredibly intoxicated man outside my house yelling at his family and I decided that I wanted to share my words with the world. I wanted to explain to you the many issues that women in Cambodia face, and why our sewing program is an important project to improve/eliminate these issues from women’s lives.

Our sewing program is so much more than just teaching women how to sew; it increases their safety and security and ensures they become good role models for other women and girls in our community.

With this program we aim to change the opinions of the rural poor that educating females is a waste of time. An opinion we often face when recruiting students for the program is that being a caretaker is the priority, and there is no need for education. According to UNICEF, “mothers who have had some education are more than twice as likely to send their own children to school as are mothers with no education.” Furthermore, there are many barriers for girls to attend/stay in school in Cambodia. If a parent is occupied, it falls on the girl to take care of their siblings and look after their house. Girls are seen to be a vital part of family labour, and families believe that the benefits of having a girl do small scale trading at home is better than the benefits of education. By providing education to females over the age of 16, we are challenging the stereotype that women shouldn’t be educated. We are also creating good role models who show that women can be both educated AND a caretaker, and are increasing the likelihood of their female children being enrolled and remaining in public school.

A popular proverb in Cambodia is “Men are gold and women are fabric.” Until 2007, ‘chbab srey’ (roughly translated to ‘female code of conduct’) was taught in schools in Cambodia. Girls learnt that they had to be respectful to their husbands and were told not take internal problems away from home. Although this program is no longer taught in school, some parents continue to recite the disciplines learnt to their daughters. For this reason, it is no surprise that 67% of Cambodian women believe they should tolerate violence in order to maintain their families (The Diplomat 2016).

We provide domestic violence training (packaged as ‘family happiness’ workshops) to our sewing students, focusing on their rights in marriages. The majority of students do not understand that verbal attacks are a form of abuse, and they are encouraged to have open communication with their spouses.

About 82% of Cambodian women believe that if they do not physically fight back, it is not rape, so explaining consent to the students is an important part of these workshops. Often, Cambodian women are treated as less valuable than men by society and are taught to be submissive. Our workshops aim to empower our students to stand up for their rights and to seek help if they experience any issues, such as was the case of a former student whose family member attempted to rape her. She bravely contacted authorities and sought our help to stand up to the perpetrator. The UN states that 20% of Cambodian men have admitted to raping a woman/women. We want to empower to change these figures.

With the skill of sewing comes independence and confidence. Our students never graduated from school; some never had the opportunity to attend at all. With a lack of education and poverty comes a lack of confidence, with many having to rely on their husbands to survive. This creates further power imbalances and reliance on spouses, no matter how volatile their relationships may be. By providing our students with a skill, they are able to earn an income and pave the way to independence. One of our students had previously separated from her husband, however realising she couldn’t survive financially without him, she returned to the difficult marriage. After she borrowed funds for a machine through our microfinance program she felt that she didn’t have to be attached to her husband to survive, and this time she left him permanently, confident in her ability to look after herself and her daughter.

By providing family planning workshops in life skills classes, we help our students know that they are in control of their bodies. Open discussions about birth control options do not often happen in Cambodia, and by teaching our students how to plan for their families, they can control the amount of children they have. This then risks them having more children than they can afford, which would put those children at risk of trafficking and being placed in orphanages. Additionally, every year, an estimated 1,700 women die during pregnancy, delivery and after birth in Cambodia (UNICEF) due to inadequate and limited access to health care.

The safety and security of our students are boosted as they develop a support network with their fellow students during the 10-month program. As they are all in similar situations, receiving similar support, they form a bond and have been known to assist each other and look out for each other. One of our former sewing students took a younger student who was an orphan under her wing, transporting her to and from the program as she didn’t have a bicycle, and giving her food when she was able. Furthermore, our students learn more about their rights from the program, and feel comfortable enough to approach the team at HHA if they are faced with a difficult situation.

Often when Cambodians do not have the skills and knowledge to gain stable employment, they head overseas to work, facing many dangerous conditions. As a result, there are currently over 600,000 Cambodians (almost 4% of the population) living and working in Thailand. If they take the journey by foot, they are at risk of stepping on one of the hundreds of thousands of landmines that are still scattered around the country after civil war. Once they successfully reach the Thai/Cambodia border, there is a chance they will be shot by police. Once they reach Thailand and gain employment, they risk unfair working conditions and exploitation from their employers. Furthermore, given they illegally enter Thailand, the chance of them getting arrested for illegal entry is high.

Girls as young as 13 are often recruited to work as maids in Malaysia. In 2011 Cambodia closed the official channels for sending maids to Malaysia, resulting in many women desperately migrating illegally. There have been many reports of unpaid wages, forced overtime, inadequate food, and physical and sexual abuse. This year the official channel for maid migration will begin again, and will likely result in a surge of migration by Cambodian women. One of our past sewing students was a woman who had returned from being a maid in Malaysia. We equipped her with sewing skills so she was able to open up a small shop on a busy road. Therefore, this program provides women with options other than resorting to migration, which has risks as mentioned.

With more than six people dying and 21 being injured each day in road accidents in Cambodia, education and awareness is needed in our communities. The women in our sewing program participate in workshops on road safety and the traffic law. Furthermore, our graduated sewing students who we hire to be our seamstresses are required to always wear bicycle and motorbike helmets. Death and injuries from road accidents further thrust people into poverty, and to ensure our students remain safe we consistently promote the message to them about the importance of wearing helmets.

The women in our sewing program develop into respected role models for our community. Through word of mouth about our program, they are being seen as success stories and as a result, more villagers have been approaching us to study in the program. They set good examples for their children, who are then enrolled in our education programs and remain long after their mothers finish studying. By showing our community that women are capable of so much more than being caretakers, and can set up their own businesses, they are challenging stereotypes and making our community a safer place for girls to fulfil their dreams and break the cycle of poverty.

So there you have it. Our sewing program increases the safety and security of girls and women in our community in Cambodia. If you stuck with me during those 1,500 words, you must surely be inspired to make a donation.

Thanks for not letting my words go to waste.