Story and Photos by Rachel Bergen
Mennonite Central Committee Cambodia partners with local non-governmental organizations in Cambodia, several of which are led by women. While this may not seem remarkable to many people hailing from Western countries, it is in Cambodia. Over the next several weeks, Rachel Bergen, a SALT participant and writer/editor for the Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), will profile amazing, courageous women working for change in their communities. These women have overcome incredible obstacles and are using their influence to support a generation of women in realizing their own potential. This is one such woman.
Solida Seng remembers the first time she set foot in a beer garden vividly. “It was so strange to me. It was dark,” she says, “with only red neon lights.”
Lida was visiting the bar 10 years ago with a group of coworkers, many of whom were men. The group was celebrating a job well done and decided to get a drink. One of her coworkers called a woman serving beer over to the table. What happened next shocked Lida.
Her coworker began groping her in front of everyone. Lida was appalled and said, “Brother, why are you doing that to her?” He explained that the women working there were free to touch.
Lida looked into the eyes of the woman serving her table and saw hopelessness, so she continued to stand up to her coworker.
“You should respect her. She’s a woman. She’s a human.” – Solida Seng, founder of Precious Women
“Brother, you should respect her. She’s a woman. She’s a human,” Lida said. But her coworker didn’t react.
That moment marked a turning point in her life. Lida thought about all the other women in Phnom Penh who, with few other options, find work in karaoke bars, beer gardens, or brothels as sex workers.
“My heart was crying,” Lida says. “Since that night my heart was broken. I thought, what can I do? What can I say? They should have someone to help them.”
She doubted her own ability to help these women, though.
“Living in this culture, we learn about men as the leader. Even though I hear that God called me for this work, I thought I’m a girl, I’m a young girl, what can I do?”
In 2010, following a great deal of prayer and reflection, Lida and six friends did their first outreach in Phnom Penh. The group visited Happy Night bar in the city’s southeast and quietly pulled aside a woman working there.
“She told us she had two young daughters at home and that her husband left her. She was jobless and had no education so she was introduced to work at the KTV. One night a customer drugged her and took her out to a guest house. This happens to many other women as well,” Lida said.
“She left to go cry in the bathroom and when she came back we prayed for her.”
Later that year, Lida founded the organization Precious Women. It offers a safe learning environment for women transitioning out of the sex trade to learn vocational skills. The organization provides the women cosmetology, sewing, and cooking training.
MCC has partnered with Precious Women since 2014 to help the organization deliver these programs to some of Cambodia’s most vulnerable women. Since its birth, Precious Women has brought 80 women through the program.
“For these women, they don’t like to come out of their room or their house because they’re discriminated against. Neighbours may not talk to them. Even some churches discriminate against these women,” Lida explains.
Even with the help of Precious Women, it isn’t easy for these women to begin a new life.
The woman Lida spoke to on that first outreach in 2010 now works as a seamstress with her relatives. She’s able to afford to send her daughters to school, but people in the community know about her past, so it’s difficult to be accepted.
Another roadblock these women face comes from within. Many come from broken families, have little education, and struggle with a lack of self-worth, Lida says.
Lida faced these doubts about herself, too.
“We are poor, we are girls, we put boundaries for ourselves,” she explains. Much of this stems from Cambodia’s patriarchal culture.
Lida says her faith and the call she felt from God helped her overcome the odds.
“I live under God’s culture, not Cambodia’s, and God designed me to be a leader,” she says, “When we have God with us, we can do anything.”
Lida also works to empower women by serving as a mentor.
“I think a few women I work with are called to be leaders. I like to help them know who they are, but sometimes it takes a long time to see.”
Lida says she’s worked with one woman for four years now, and she’s grown into a confident and independent person.
“I put those seeds in her,” Lida says happily, “God is using me to help her, mentor her and equip her.”
Despite all she’s done, there are still many women working in the sex industry who are exploited, under-educated, and don’t believe they will amount to anything. Lida says it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the issue, but she knows small actions with great faith can move mountains.
“The issue is so big. I may never change the whole situation, but at least I can change a little bit. If I do it, if my husband does it, if another person does it, we can make a big change.”