By Emma Ehrenthal
The trip we spent a year planning has come and gone already, leaving me wondering: What now? What can I take away from these intense three weeks? One intention I had for this trip was to create meaningful personal connections, in order to contribute to the larger global web of women. On this trip we worked on a small personal level by connecting one-on-one with clients and building relationships with staff members, while also stepping back and putting issues into a larger context by visiting the Killing Fields, and learning about social justice and NGO networks. In this blog I am going to focus my gaze on one meaningful interaction with a woman who looks at the health of our global community and works on both a small and large scale to contribute in a meaningful way.
I met Sam Sokha in Siem Reap our first week when we stayed at Soria Moria. Every morning I waited excitedly for Sokha to come to the hotel because she always pointed our explorations in the right direction. It’s comforting when you are in a new country to have such a knowledgeable hostess. It wasn’t until the last day while I was waiting for the bus that I sat with her long enough to meet her. While we exchanged language lessons, I began to ask Sokha to share her story with me.Sam Sokha works as the Community Outreach Program Organizer at the Soria Moria hotel (Michelle wrote early on the blog about the hotel’s efforts to be socially conscious in their local community). Talking to Sokha I saw the passion that she shared with her employer for social justice. Sokha’s hope to create a better world has fueled her work to empower women in her community. Helen Keller said: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope or confidence.” I was inspired seeing Sokha glow when she talked about her work, which was full of struggle and obstacles caused by social norms and life’s daily challenges. These daily struggles are what get in most people’s way of fulfilling their dreams. But Sokha sees the bigger picture. As a working single mom helping to support her older parents she has every excuse to not have extra energy to spend on organizing local community support groups for women, finishing her education, or traveling to conferences to make global connections for working Cambodia women. But Sokha does all of this. She is doing the work and in return all she is asking for is for people to show up.
Sam Sokha is a single mother with a son. She explained to me how she had seen many women commit suicide after getting divorced because they felt so desperate. Kuch Naren and Samantha Melamed write about this issue in The Cambodian Daily, explaining that when woman choice to divorce in Cambodia they lose all their rights to remarry, for property ownership, and for child custody. She made a hard choice to fight against the social norms and not see her life as over when her marriage ended, Sokha worked hard to get an education and career in order to provide for her family.
Sokha met Kristin Holdon Hansen, the founder of Soria Moria, while Hansen was first traveling in Cambodia. The women shared a passion for women’s rights, social justice, and Cambodia. When Hansen decided to open a socially conscious hotel in Cambodia she asked Sam Sokha to come work with her. Sokha began working at Soria Moria in 2007. The hotel funded Sokha’s education, and she received a degree in tourism and hospitality at Build Bright University. In 2012 Sokha took on the role of Community Outreach Program Manager, involving her in many exciting social justice programs and allowing her to share these responsible tourism approaches with other hotels. Some of these programs involve employee ownership, local employment, employee training programs, teaming up with local NGOs in skills and training programs, employee higher education programs (currently supporting 9 bachelors level and 3 masters level employee students), language and literacy classes, educational staff training trips, helping guests support ethically run local organizations, raising environmental consciousness, and providing insurance for employees. As a local Cambodian in Siem Reap, Sokha knows what the community needs and helps make the social justice programs at Soria Moria relevant to the community.
Sam Sokha was invited to represent Soria Moria at the 2013 Social Enterprise for Youth and Community Organization Conference. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Professor Yunus also spoke at the conference about socially conscious ways to generate employment and grow the local economy. Sokha glowed while talking about the conference and I could see how powerful it was for her to be surrounded by people who shared her dream. Knowing that we are not alone in our goals and our struggles creates a unity that provides energy and hope when we need support.
Recently Sokha has been organizing a support group for women in her local community to help educate them about how to build their own careers so they can be financially independent. When Sokha talked about the women’s group she sighed and looked tired, explaining her frustration with the group. Often the women didn’t show up offering excuses about making dinner, cleaning, and feeling rundown and tired. Sokha knows these challenges are real and exhausting, but she explained that she has them also and is still able to show up. Sokha is able to see the bigger picture in her life and in the lives of women around her. She also sees the cycle they are caught in, and that she can only do so much. Seiyon discuses the traditional gender roles in Cambodia and who they are changing in her blog. These women have to join her in the work in order to make their community a better place.
Sokha has built a strong support system around her at Soria Moria and she is working to extend that support system globally. She has helped build an exchange program with Quality Hotel Expo in Norway called the Cambodia-Norway Exchange for Sustainable Tourism. Two employees from Soria Moria will change places for a year with two employees from Quality Hotels. The program’s goals are for the employees to experience and learn about other cultures in the hope of developing the employee’s global justice leadership skills. This program that Sokha helped create looks at social justice on a global level.
Women in Cambodia are coming together to support each other and make their voices heard. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights is starting a program called, The Empowering Cloghers Project, the program provides women the tools and training for them to voice there thoughts global through blogs, (Wight, 2014). Like Sam Sokha, this program’s goal is to change the social norms for women in Cambodia and they are reaching out to our global community for support.
NCASI also wants to build and strengthen female global support. NCASI is helping our Women’s Handicraft and Development Association (WHADA) partners build financial connections in the United States so they can independently sell here. WHADA was formed in 2008, it is a women’s cooperative that produces beautiful coconut jewelry, scarves, bracelets, headbands, and more. We found businesses that share our interests in supporting fair trade and brought these WHADA products back to be marketed here in Boulder. You can find these products at Umba, Boulder Art and Beyond, and Posh. Check them out!
Naren, K. and Melamed, S. (2014) Divorce System Gives Many Women Few Options. The Cambodia Daily.http://www.cambodiadaily.com/archives/land-title-owners-likelier-to-escape-poverty-50797/
Seiyon (2013) The Changing Role of Women in Cambodian Society. Retrieved from/
Wight, E. (2014) Rural Women Encouraged to Boost Online Presence. The Phnom Penh Post.