IN 2010, Solida Seng attended a get-together at a beer garden and witnessed an unpleasant scene she’d likely never forget. Her male colleagues invited a group of the bar’s women staff over and began groping them without consent.
Shocked by their behaviour, she asked them to explain their actions. The group of men dismissed her reprimand, claiming their behaviour was perfectly fine as long as they gave the women extra tips.
Solida says she couldn’t imagine being in those workers’ shoes and being physically violated by men. Women, she says, should be regarded as precious rather than subjected to unwelcome advances from strange men.
“All women are created unique and equal by God. All women have the same value in society. All women shall be protected and supported and all women are precious!” she says.
As a feminist, Solida was moved by the experience and started thinking of ways to help. She gathered six of her friends, and with an initial donation of $20 each, she founded Precious Women.
Solida told The Post :“In Cambodia five years ago, women were not well educated. They were valued less and had little opportunity. They were vulnerable to sexual exploitation and violence, especially those who work in beer gardens.
“We’re now providing them with consultation and empowering them to another level. With this, we hope they will realise they have value and can live their lives with dignity. I want to give them hope,” he says.
Precious Women aims to give the opportunity of a better life to young women working in karaoke bars, beer gardens and brothels. To succeed, Solida says she needs to expand her the number of her staff and volunteers.
The organisation is divided into two programmes – outreach and butterfly. The outreach programme involves staff making direct contact with the women.
After a relationship is built, they are invited to the butterfly programme, which is where they are taught different life skills, like sewing, cooking, English, and computer literacy.
Solida received a donation of about $300 and spent it on business cards to distribute to women in the entertainment industry. If they want to get out of their current situation, Solida encourages them to call the number on the card.
There are currently 23 women receiving vocational training and English instruction from Precious Women. The expectation is that women can use these skills to gain proper employment after they quit their night jobs.
The skills will enable them to earn a sufficient income to support their families while putting a stop to social stereotypes against female workers in the entertainment industry.
Precious Women director Kong Sopheak has been with the organisation for eight years. Kong comes from a rural area and says she was excited to join an organisation that values women, especially underprivileged ones like her.
“Before I started working here, I had heard the name ‘Precious Women’ and it appealed to me. I wanted to join the organisation,” she says.
Kong recounted a time she walked to the training hall where some young women were learning cosmetology skills to help them find work at a beauty salon.
Among the dozen students, some sat in salon chairs allowing their peers to apply make-up and practice hairdressing. Then they switched roles, and at the end of it all, not only did they look beautiful, they had picked up some new skills too.
While watching them style each other’s hair, Kong told The Post: “I was from the countryside when I first came here. I knew nothing about computers or English. Luckily, while working here, I had an opportunity to pursue my education.”
The organisation offers classes ranging from sewing, cosmetology, and cooking to general education, English, and computer literacy.
Vulnerable women can seek psychological counselling if work pressures start to overwhelm them. Solida also plans to offer temporary housing and scholarships to them.
“We went down to the beer garden after getting permission from the business owners to teach the women about empowerment.
“This year, about 224 women joined our women empowerment workshop and 80 of them decided to quit their night jobs after they had picked up life skills,” she says.
According to Kong, the organisation also arranges monthly networking events for the women to help them bond and support each other.
“Every month, we invite about 20 people from different beer gardens, and night entertainment businesses. What we do is like team-building. We play games, listen to their stories and let them know we are all rooting for them.”
The daughters and sisters of those participating in the workshops are also invited to join if they are out of school.
“Our policy is to focus on saving women employed in the nightlife business. But if they have daughters or sisters who are out of school, we will include them in our free training programme, but they must be between 16 and 30 years old,” Kong says.
Since its inception, Precious Women has empowered more than 1,000 women to change jobs. But Kong says there is no pressure to switch careers.
“We would not force them to leave their night jobs. Having them come to a class is already a good sign of change,” she says.
In some cases, Precious Women can offer them small loans if wish to start a small business.
“It’s not much, but it can help them set up a small business. We don’t charge interest and they can pay us back starting from $10 per month,” Kong says.
She says the organisation also plans on opening a restaurant to further enable them to build a strong community of like-minded women.
Kong admitted that due to financial issues, some women still have to carry on working at night to support their families. But she’s pleased to see some of the workers move on to bigger and better things.
“Some of our previous students now are living in bigger houses with better living conditions. I can say they are the pride of our organisation,” she says.
Precious Women is located at #36, Street 35D, Dangkao, Phnom Penh. More information can be found at its website www.preciouswomen.org or call 012 902 489.