My women’s empowerment journey was awe inspiring. I think there are many truths for women [and so many are mothers!] world wide in the stories I will tell you. I hope you enjoy and are inspired to travel, learn more and possibly even give.
OUTSIDE SIAM REAP, CAMBODIA
I went deep off the world grid and hours into the northern fields of Cambodia and met one of only three women provincial council leaders in the whole country. Her story of surviving the Khmer Rouge regime and being one of the only survivors left in her village who knew how to read was gut wrenching [she was interned at age 10]. She became the “go to” person for helping aid in any necessary reading — especially important documents like land deals and government legalities. It slowly became clear that she naturally held an important role and she desired to make it official. She easily won her seat on the provincial council but it took much longer to gain the trust of the people as the previous leader had tricked them out of the funds they had given to create a ground water well and he was never seen again. She decided to put up her own land and only ox as collateral so the people would trust her and invest again. If anything went wrong she would be homeless and have no assets. I think only a woman would have done this, don’t you?! It worked, she gained their trust and was able to get the village their first ground well. She’s gone on to do many wonderful things for her people, has been re-elected many times, and has joined forces with other female leaders to give training sessions on how to lead and best practices. She is a widow and mother of five and was proud while not at all arrogant to say she can do anything a man can, and even more. More lovely images from Cambodia here and here.
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
While in Phnom Penh, Cambodia I met two women who founded their own media center/radio station [above center] which airs programs entirely dedicated to women's issues. Yes, this is the one and only station doing such a thing and it bumps up against government and other male agendas frequently. They’ve overcome many obstacles over years. Both women always knew they wanted to be journalists. One said that as a young girl she saw a woman journalist reporting while speaking into a microphone that she was holding and that image has motivated her for her whole life. The media center has a women’s exchange program which allows Cambodians and other world students an opportunity to learn how to become gender conscious journalists and producers. The station does a lot of work to engage the general public about women’s issues such as rape and domestic violence, women’s rights and legal access, and political participation. They have a giant antennae in the center of their parking lot which runs on oil from a tank, which is also in the parking lot, that they have filled weekly – truly grass roots. Go visit their website and learn more.
QUANG NINH, VIETNAM
In Vietnam I traveled east many hours from Hanoi to Quang Ninh province 200 km from China’s border. There I met a woman helping trafficking victims repatriate, get legal aid, counseling, and possible employment. I learned so much about the horrors of human trafficking that I’m still reeling from this encounter. After hearing about this woman’s successes and struggles with her local women's union of which she is the leader, we traveled to meet one victim whom she had a typical afternoon appointment with. This young girl was tricked by a local person she knew, which is often the case and why trafficking is such a disturbingly deceitful practice. The trafficker promised her work just across the border in China in an administrative role. You have to realize that so many village women are extremely poor and there is no work in the their province so the idea of work, anywhere — no matter how far, is serious motivation as they and their family’s survival depends on it. She was lured across the border, held against her will, and forced into prostitution. She tried unsuccessfully to escape and was then beaten and trafficked even further inside China, so far inside that her captors believed none of their victims could ever find their way back. This made her captors lax and inattentive. She escaped and against all odds made it home. But in Vietnam if you don’t register with the government every six months you will no longer be recognized as a citizen. So she has no homeland. If a victim returns to their village, and they think about only 20% return [it’s impossible to to have accurate trafficking statistics], they are shunned and outcast by their neighbors – sometimes even by their family. The young girl I met was having horrible health problems and feared she had contracted some diseases for which she was unable to afford to even see a doctor for a diagnosis let alone receive medicine or care. The women’s union leader is helping her go through the legal system to get her citizenship restored, but they have to prove that she didn’t willingly leave Vietnam and as we know she did — a catch 22. She is also hoping that her rudimentary Chinese translation abilities may land her a job. That’s the positive. You can’t imagine the squalor and psychological pain she is living in, it was horrible and deeply saddening. In the photo above you see the back of her head, her parents, and children supporting her during the meeting. It was heart wrenching. Here's a link to more images and the next day in Hanoi, Vietnam.
I visited the first, and so far only, women’s shelter in Laos about an hour outside Vientiane. As part of a comprehensive legal and judicial reform process in Laos, the Laos Women’s Union was given responsibility by the government for drafting the first laws related to women’s and children’s rights. By law, they are now required to have a women’s shelter for protection, counseling and to teach vocational skills in addition to now having laws stating that domestic abuse and trafficking are illegal [up until 2005 one couldn’t prosecute as it wasn’t illegal]. I went to the sewing and embroidery rooms to see the women at work. I bought a few of their pieces. One piece I bought took three months to make and sells for $20. The average person in Laos lives on $382. per year. Obviously most live in serious poverty. I met a few victims of domestic violence while there, including a new baby just born at the shelter. One of the shelter victim's [above] oldest male son [age seven] was taken by her husband, his second wife and her mother-in-law, and she may never see her son again. There’s no happy ending here as the shelter can not help this woman get her son back because there is no legal recourse for the first wife/mother. This mom feels she’s lucky to even be at the shelter and is resigned to lose a son. It broke my heart and brings tears to my eyes while I type this. Here are more images from my time in Laos.
Next I was off to Indonesia. Again I traveled so far, so deep into northern Aceh about an hour and half by car and then moped outside of Langsa which was five suicidal driving hours by car from Medan where I had flown into. I have to reiterate, it was sooooo far. I went by field after field of rice, down dirt roads that only ox, bicycles and the occasional moped drive down. An hour outside Langsa, I found myself holding onto the back of a paid moped driver our guide picked up at the last village that had a paved road. Oh, and I was wearing a skirt that day since it was 95 degrees and 100% humidity, swell eh, if only I’d known all the details the day had in store for me when dressing. I was so far out, but surprisingly not at the end of the road, when we stopped and were invited into a community room about ten feet off the ground, about 300 sq ft, with the windows open but there was no wind, no fan either – duh, no electricity. I was in the shade of the roof but swelling and suffering from the radical heat and humidity. The women I was meeting are Muslims and they are dressed in clothes covering their entire bodies including the traditional head coverings. I have to say it again — it was so f#@king HOT — and I am the only one sweating buckets. Ok enough of me and my problems. These 20 village women were amazing. They have each saved about $30 [272,000 rupiah] and pooled their money together to join a microcredit program. As we know, women are often responsible for the upbringing of the world’s children and the poverty of the women generally results in the physical and social underdevelopment of their children. Experience shows that women are a good credit risk, and that women invest their income toward the well being of their families. At the same time, women themselves benefit from the higher social status they achieve within the home when they are able to provide income. As it stands now, if one family member has a health problem the medical costs [often just simple procedures] will send them permanently into debt and into a desperate state of poverty. The women I met were wonderful, engaging and happy. They invited me to stay and learn Acehnese. They were so excited to learn I was the mother of a 21 month old and our motherhood commonality crossed all cultural boundaries. Amazing! My photos of these women are my favorite from the trip. I have a few more wonderful images to see.
Lastly I went to Seoul, Korea. I must admit that ending my travels in a developed – actually an over developed — city was very welcomed at this point. The bath, the food choices, corner store shopping, and ease of access to anything I needed was thrilling and comfortable. In Seoul I met a leading female politician [top], an elected assembly woman, who has done years of work recruiting women to become politicians. She is a serious mentor to most Korean women politicians. She said so many true and inspiring statements. But my favorite was when she said women make better politicians because they are natural care takers, as they are the mothers and wives, and that this makes them care deeply about the virtue of people. Caring about people is the main goal of a good politician. Women are also cleaner politicians [all that house work eh?] remaining clear of common scandals. We also met with a few of her protégées [bottom] who spoke about many women’s issues we are familiar with such as work life balance and child care. Korean women leaders still have a lot of work ahead, but I have to say I think they are farther along than the US in some ways as they have a female prime minister and a quota system to help women advance. We can learn a few things from them. To quote from the Korean Institute for Women in Politics...It is not desirable if the expansion of women in politics is so expedient and passive as to simply join the male-dominated paradigm or to have access to it. Women should change the past politics - which has been authoritarian, dominant and sometimes violent, based on male standards - into a new one that is serving for people, transparent and clean for the progress of quality life, based on love, service and devotion. Here are links to my days in Seoul: 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5
A legal-eeeze post script: My views are my own, they do not reflect the views of my employer.
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