With poverty and economic insecurity widely prevalent in Cambodia, families living in rural areas often earn less than $2 per day, and many girls are out of school for various reasons. The project has been providing these girls with extensive support to catch up on missed education and progress to middle or higher education, while empowering women and female-headed households with various skills to improve self-confidence and self-esteem. By breaking down barriers to learning and encouraging equal participation, the project has been equipping these women and girls with knowledge that they can pass on to benefit their families and the broader community.
For Carole Rivers from SI Chester, UK, a recent holiday in Cambodia provided a wonderful opportunity to visit the women’s empowerment project in Siem Reap, and provide a first hand account of the progress achieved as part of this programme so far. Joining Carole and her husband on the visit were a Canadian couple invited by Jenni Lipa, Founder of the CCDO.
A visit to the CCDO Women’s Life Skills/Empowerment project in Cambodia,
by Carole Rivers, SI Chester, UK
24 February 2023
It’s early morning and Leangseng Hoy, CCDO’s Executive Director, greets us at the hotel with a warm welcome and ushers us onto a common form of transport in Cambodia, the tuk tuk.
A few miles out of town, we leave the tarmac road and bump along dirt tracks for another 15 minutes to a village where a women’s empowerment forum is underway. The forums cover a range of topics and take place twice a month. A group of 30 or so young women with small children, besides a few older women brought along by their daughters, are sitting in a small clearing between the village houses, listening to a member of the CCDO team talk about family planning and the types of contraception available. I am joined by Sovoan Sem, the Education Coordinator, who sits next to me and translates. The talk is detailed and comprehensive and the women listen attentively. They are completely at ease with the CCDO team. I ask Sovoan how long it took to gain the women’s confidence and trust. ‘One year,’ she replies.
We notice a policeman sitting to one side. Sovoan explains that he is the Police Chief of the commune and that he works with the CCDO team to support the women. This is impressive. A working relationship with the police must have required time and effort and Sovoan tells me that the team have been educating the commune police about domestic violence.
This is the topic he will speak about today and he rises to take his turn. He describes the different types of domestic violence and urges the women to contact him at any time if they have any concerns. He explains about prison sentences for offenders, offers the women his full support and gives them his telephone number. They can call him any time, day or night. Again, we are impressed.
Next up is the commune women’s counsellor. She describes the free services on offer to the women such as help with hospital costs. “You may need support in different ways,” she says, “don’t be anxious about coming to see me. We will give you the support you need and we won’t let you down.” She finishes by encouraging the women to register births and deaths in their families.
Finally, Leangseng introduces me to the village women, who are delighted to meet us and nod appreciatively as I say a few words about the intentions of Soroptimist International to educate and empower them to lead better lives.
“‘Au kun,” they chime in unison, “thank you for your support.” Their thanks are heartfelt.
We walk a short distance down the dirt track to the home of Souerm Sat, who has been in the women’s programme for over a year. Sat has started her own small business raising pigs. So far she has raised 55 pigs, with each pig selling for around US$50.
Sat is excited to meet us and shows us around with pride and pleasure. The business is thriving. She expresses enormous gratitude for the support that she has received.
“What did you do before this?” I ask her.
“I worked on a construction site,” she says. A reminder to us that this is Cambodia, where women take up manual labour as often as men.
Again, we receive a deeply sincere “Au kun” as we bid goodbye and head back to the tuk tuk for a short ride to the home of Pich Chouerng.
Sovoan explains that Chouerng is single and has looked after her disabled sister since childhood. Her plight became desperate during Covid when she could not get enough food and both women went hungry. Her situation was completely turned around by the women’s programme. Chouerng, like most village woman, knew the basic skills of basket weaving and with a little tuition was able to hone her skills and create beautiful, perfect cane baskets.
Chouerng does not pause her basket weaving while we are there, rarely looking up as she speaks, her fingers nimble and quick. It will take her 2 days to complete one large basket.
A set of 5 baskets in different sizes will fetch US$30. Sovoan tells us that because of her sister who cannot be left alone, Chouerng cannot collect the cane for the baskets herself, as other women would be able to do. In fact, she cannot leave the house at all. So, she has to buy the cane and use middlemen to sell the baskets. I would like to know more about Chouerng and her sister but we are short of time and must take our leave. We say goodbye and the heartfelt thanks we receive from Chouerng is humbling.
Our next visit is to meet Chak Makara, one of the “smart women,” so called because of the special potential these women have shown during the women’s programme. She greets us warmly and tells us about the success of her enterprise – raising and selling hens. Her face is joyful, radiant, as she speaks.
What was her job before she joined the programme?
“I was a cleaner in a small shop“, she tells us.
Makara is sharp, ambitious, self-confident and keen to share what she has learned with other village women. She tells us how her life has changed since she started the women’s programme.
“The financial pressure that I felt before has gone. Things are much easier. Everything is so much better. And I have learned to think outside the box. I want to expand my business and would like to start a shop.”
Once again, sincere thanks are expressed for the support she has received before we take our leave. Picture – Since joining the women’s programme, Rem Yai has found pride and joy in her vegetable garden, selling produce locally.
Our final stop is at Rem Yai’s vegetable garden. Like Makara, she glows with pride and joy as she shows us what she has achieved since joining the women’s programme. In the garden she is growing lettuce, spinach, onions, and fruits such as pineapple and mango. She also breeds fish.
Yai clearly enjoys being outside in her garden and is not put off by hard manual work. Everything is done by hand and she shows us a pair of watering cans and a heavy wooden hoe. Beyond the neatly arranged vegetable plot lies a larger space of land that Yai is gradually cultivating, strip by strip. I ask her how she feels about her new enterprise. Her face lights up.
“I feel as if I’m flying,” she says.
It is time to leave. We bump and bounce our way back long the dirt track in the tuk tuk. We all agree it has been an impressive, inspiring morning. The pride, pleasure and self -confidence shown by the women we met has been rewarding to see. A great amount of time and dedication has been put into the women’s empowerment/life skills project and the women we met today demonstrate the success of the programme. They are but a few of the “success stories.” Equally impressive is the exceptional passion and commitment demonstrated by the CCDO team for their work with the village women.
Before saying goodbye, Leangseng expresses his own gratitude to SI. The CCDO could not have achieved what we had seen that day, he says, without the help of Soroptimists.
With thanks to SI President Maureen Maguire, CCDO Founder Jenni Lipa and the CCDO team in Siem Reap for arranging the visit.