Meeting with inspirational women

June 27, 2016
by 
Mathieu Martin, member of Development and Peace (Diocese of Rimouski)

In June 2016, eight Development and Peace members from Eastern Québec will be travelling to Cambodia with their regional animators for 20 days. They will be visiting the regions of Phnom Phen, Kampot, Siem Reap, Battambang and Ratanakiri.

To fully understand the context of the projects described below, a brief historical overview will be useful. 

Cambodia was first bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Right afterwards, from 1975 to 1979, came the horrible genocide perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge, causing the death of some two million people. Vietnam then occupied the country for 10 years. Guerrilla warfare only ended in 1998. Cambodia emerged from this period very poor and weakened in terms of social cohesion. A deep wound is still very much felt and frequently mentioned by many Cambodians.

June 9, 10 and 11 were devoted to visiting projects implemented by BANTEAY SREI, a Development and Peace partner. We were accompanied by Chenda, our guide and an interpreter for this portion of the trip.

BANTEAY SREI a Devp and Peace partner

This local organization of Cambodian women works with the poorest women living in rural areas. With them, BANTEAY SREI organizes projects designed to improve their standard of living, especially in the economic, family, psychological and political spheres. Such initiatives bring these women out of their isolation and help to strengthen them by fostering group identity and solidarity.

On June 9 in the afternoon, we went to the village of Bampen. There we visited a self-managed food counter and a micro-finance cooperative. Most notably, we met with a group of 17 women gathered in the local community hall. They had come for a discussion workshop on their living conditions as women. After the presentations, they addressed the issue of domestic violence. These women have all experienced war and have all been, and often still are, victims of violence. They talked to us openly. Their group enables them, in their view, to better understand the cycle of violence, to face it and educate their husbands, while having the emergency numbers needed at their disposal. They noted that the problem had decreased by more than 60 percent within the community. 

Cambodia community garden managed by the village cooperative

That same day, we spent the afternoon in the village of Taprok, whose stilt houses are scattered in the forest. We first visited a community garden managed by the village cooperative, then met with a group of 30 women, all over 70 years of age and war widows, in order to discover how their cooperative works, particularly in terms of micro-credit. Worth noting is the fact that the account is opened in the name of the woman, who manages home economics.

Seeing a woman in our group use sunscreen, the women thought it was a skin whitening lotion! This aroused great interest, since many women wish to have lighter skin. For us this was definitely an interesting moment! 

On the morning of June 10, we went to Battambang, a city in a neighbouring province of Siem Reap. This entailed an unrelenting three-hour bus trip prodded by seat springs that were, shall we say, over the top. On each side of the road, red earth with, here and there, lean cows grazing on yellow grass at the end of their rope. Houses, all on stilts because of the rainy season, lined up single file, whether made of straw, planks or cement. In front of most houses, an altar was erected to honour the spirits of family ancestors. Makeshift stalls selling basic groceries had sprung up everywhere, with flies for company, accompanied by dangling hammocks, often the only element of household comfort. 

In the afternoon of June 10, as well as on June 11 during the day, we visited two more villages, Phey Roka and Kampong Chnaing Muoy. There we found the same sorts of living conditions, with similar projects, including community gardens, chicken coops and microcredit. Families are specifically encouraged to send their girls to school for the long term. Women are also encouraged to run in local and regional elections.

Cambodia cooperative works

Last but not least, it should be pointed out that everywhere we went, we were welcomed with a generous and authentic simplicity. Smiles were irresistible. A big thanks to all of you, the women of BANTEAY SREI and neighbouring villages. Despite difficult living conditions, you’re standing tall, and suffering seems to have led you to this love beyond hatred and revenge. Full of life as you are, you’re creating a brand-new world.

 For further information on the solidarity trip to Cambodia, pay a regular visit to the participants’ blog..