Over the last few weeks in Cambodia, I've gotten to know some brilliant and resilient women. They are strong, smart, and pretty funny. And some of them are just now learning this about themselves thanks to a female empowerment movement at Penh Lenh, a social enterprise and jewelry shop in Phnom Penh started by Rachel Dodson, who used to be a modeling agent in New York. After she learned about how women are treated in Cambodia, she took her business expertise and passion for design to Cambodia to open a store that employs and empowers at-risk and marginalized women.
Here are some statistics to give you some context for what life looks like for women in Cambodia:
- 70% of women work in vulnerable employment.
- 1 in 4 women have experienced physical or sexual partner violence, according to WHO.
- 1 in 5 Cambodian men admit to committing at least one rape, according to a UN report and nearly 40% who committed a violation did not experience any consequence for it.
- Cambodia ranks 96th of 148 countries for gender inequality.
- 65% of businesses run by women are less profitable than those run by men.
- 84% of employed women aged 15 years and older have primary school education or less.
- Cambodia’s sex trade is valued at $511 Million USD.
- Cambodia is estimated to have between 50,000 and 55,000 women and girls in prostitution, about 35 percent of who are younger than 18 years old.
At Penh Lenh, Rachel provides the female artisans with English classes, budgeting courses, and female empowerment sessions. In addition to the education, she makes sure it's a safe place to work with fair pay in a positive and fun environment. All of the products at the shop are locally sourced and handcrafted by these incredible women who have overcome previous challenges and began their new lives.
Most women in Cambodia have just accepted the notion that women are not equal to men because that's how society treats them. There is an old saying in Khmer, the language they speak in Cambodia, that translates to: "Men are gold and women are white cloth," which means that gold can be cleaned, but white cloth gets dirty and torn and is stained forever, implying that women are the inferior gender. But at Penh Lenh, their response is that "Women are Gold," referring to the strong and amazing women in Cambodia and around the world, and the inspiration for the title of our documentary.
There are women everywhere who are victims of sex trafficking or vulnerable employment. And sometimes, men refer to women who have been exploited in this way as "broken." Rachel wanted to show that these women are not broken, but they are all brave and worthy and full of potential. This is why she called the brand Penh Lenh, which means "whole" or "complete" in Khmer. And from the looks of the women who work here, they are whole, and they are family. Penh Lenh has started a wave of feminism and has helped these girls feel empowered to know their value, feel confident, and to fight gender inequality in their community.
During our time filming, we've spent countless hours laughing and playing games, having dinner, visiting places around town, and sharing stories.
Heng is a smiley, 21-year-old prankster who is in love with Justin Bieber. She is constantly making us laugh, and she's very independent. She has several tattoos with the theme of "freedom," one of the most important accomplishments she's had in her life. Heng was separated from her sister Sray Da as a child, and both of them were raised without parents. They both endured challenges throughout their lives, but then they were reunited in 2011. Now they work together side by side at Penh Lenh, where they've been able to start over. Sray Da has a daughter named Mary, with another child on the way! Tita is another artisan at the shop who's overcome struggles. She is a single mom of a baby boy named Isaac. She's very quiet but very silly once you get to know her.
Srey Mao is the co-founder of Penh Lenh, who manages the shop as Rachel's partner. Srey Mao moved into Phnom Penh when she was 16 because she wanted to relieve her family of having to take care of her, so she worked several jobs to support herself. She is hard-working, articulate, and introspective. She has a unique outlook on women's equal role in the world, and has been an inspiration for the women around her.
Rachel is a badass boss woman, who started her own business but also made sure she was helping lift others up along the way. She is kind and creative, and has helped change the lives of several women in the community. Rachel is humble and genuine, and I wholeheartedly believe her impact will be long-lasting.
I am so grateful to have built these friendships with all of the staff at Penh Lenh, and I hope our documentary film does their story of triumph justice.
You can support the mission of Penh Lenh and directly help the women of Cambodia by shopping their products!