Last night I went on an outreach with a local NGO called Precious Women that was established just over a year ago by a gifted young Khmer woman by the name of Solida. God birthed in Solida's heart a desire to reach out to the women in the beer gardens and karoke bars. The women who work in these entertainment establishments are known as entertainment workers who are often propositioned for sex and can be subject to harassment from male guests. The girls are encouraged by their employers to encourage men to drink as much alcohol as possible and so the job often involves drinking with men. You can only imagine the type of raucous activity and behavior that can develop under those kind of circumstances. These situations ultimately lead to sexual exploitation and abuse.
Precious Women like many of the other organizations who want to help vulnerable women, desires to see these young women live with dignity, equality and hope. So last night, I joined two other missionary friends in this outreach. We first went to the office of Precious Women where we met the other volunteers. For me, it was a joy to meet young Khmer brothers and sisters in Christ who also have a passion to reach out to these exploited women. So often in Cambodian culture, women who are involved in any kind of sexual exploitation are shunned and so how encouraging it was to see that the Lord is changing the hearts of His people here, especially the younger generation who understand that to be followers of Christ is to demonstrate His love in tangible ways by reaching out to those who are in desperate situations.
I was surprised to see one young man who I met previously at the Chab Dai meetings. He and his wife have been volunteering at Precious Women for a year. Then there was another young guy who apparently remembered me from New Life Church. He is with YWAM and had brought some of his other sisters in Christ to join the outreach. Being in this setting with these younger Khmer was such a privilege. The meeting was conducted in Khmer and surprisingly I could understand enough of the conversation even if I couldn't necessarily speak it out:-). After the team leader shared about the protocols, we spent some time in prayer for the evening's activities. Then, we split up into two groups. It is important to have male volunteers as they act as our 'protectors' and so off I went with my 4 other young friends in a tuk tuk. It was another opportunity to practise my Khmer!
The particular beer garden is one that volunteers have gone to before so when we arrived, the men who work in the beer garden knew one of the guy volunteers and ushered us all in. At the entrance, were only 3 women that were sitting outside as the others were already busy entertaining people. The atmosphere in this place was not what I was expected. It was just like a restaurant, except all the tables were separated in their own little cubicles surrounded by plants---I suppose that's why they call it a beer garden! As we were escorted to our table, we quickly glanced over to all the other tables and one could see two beer garden girls sitting with the group of Khmer men. Obviously, it is very uncommon for women guests to be visiting this place but as Pastor Chantha had said to me earlier in the day, its pretty safe if you are a woman as you will not be harassed. That makes sense as part of the protocols that we had to be mindful of is actually ''protecting'' our male colleagues from being hit on!
So we sat down, ordered some food (fried rice and fried frog legs) and they served us a bunch of fruit drinks, water and pop. I actually decided to try the fried frog legs---not bad---it taste like fried chicken and if it was not so hot, I probably would have eaten it out but I succumb to the pepper and handed it over to one of my Khmer buddies. While we waited for a young woman to join us, one of the volunteers was telling me that in these kind of establishments you may have about 20 girls who act as hostesses, but behind the scenes you have waitresses, girls who wash the dishes and glasses, cleaners---so they are a lot of women beyond the 20 young women who maybe entertaining the clientele.
About 20 minutes later, a young woman appeared and came to sit with us. Like many of the women here, she is dressed up in a long satin type like dress. Each of them wear different colours---for those of you who are Asian, it looks like a Chinese Cheong-Sam---very fitted to show the shape of the body except the top portion of the outfit is cut in a somewhat v-neck shape to show some cleavage. The young lady who I will call 'Soriya'' was very friendly as she sat down. Our role was to simply ask her several questions as this is part of gathering info and just getting a sense of how we can help these young women. Between the 5 of us, we had asked her different questions like what her name was, how old she was, what province she came from, was she married or divorce. How did you find this job? What do you think about your job? How do you feel about your life? What dreams or hopes do you have? etc.
If the women are open to sharing, we let them know that we are with Precious Women and invite her to come to a fellowship group to learn more about other opportunities for employment, to get counselling and ultimately to help her to know that she has value and worth and that a new life filled with hope is possible. Last night, as we interacted with this young woman, I came away once again reminded that in Cambodia, we need to think holistically ---yes we need to share the gospel but also we need to find practical ways to empower these young women as there is such a desperate need for good jobs. So many of these young women have no choice. What is it like to live in an environment where you are so desperate to earn a living and if you have limited education, your choices are so limited. There is no social services here, there is no welfare support like we have in the West. For Soriya, she had only been working at this beer garden for 3 months. She needed money to pay for her rent. She was not married and had no children and her family actually encouraged her to go and work in the beer garden. She has limited education but she was working at the beer garden so that she could make money as she is studying to become a hairdresser. Her dream is to open a beauty salon.
Soriya like many of the girls she represents have dreams for a better life. In many ways it is these dreams that keep their hope alive and enables them to persevere in the midst of working in such challenging and degrading environments. So often the women in these situations have to 'pretend'with a permanent smile on their face that they are happy despite the fact that they dislike their jobs. In Soriya's case, she doesn't even like to drink beer and yet here she is, forced to drink it with her patrons. Desperation in such settings causes one to do desperate things. In many ways, these girls are trapped as they have to pretend to be someone else in order to survive. My heart goes out to them. I can't even fathom the type of bondage they are on. What is it like to not live in freedom? What is it like to not have choice? What is it like to live in desperation? Poverty has many faces---this outreach shows me the realities of poverty at another level---how it robs people of freedom, of joy and ultimately of life.
This is why Jesus came. He came to point people to know that in Him they can find true freedom, true joy, true hope,true love and ultimate true life because He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He came that each of these young women would know that in Him they do not have to live a life of pretense but instead, He wants to clothe them with new robes, robes that are filled with new dreams, robes that are filled with a life of hope, meaning and purpose and most importantly, robes that are filled with His love that in Him they would know their self worth, their dignity and their value.
For me the glimmer of light in this dark world of beer gardens and karoke bars is the fact that some of these young women have hope---like Soriya, they are studying to become hairdressers or some other type of profession that does not degrade their humanity. It is this small 'hope'that we hold onto and pray into for their lives. Someone once said that the reason we grow weary and want to give up is because we have lost hope. I am so thankful that the Lord in His own way is giving them hope so that they endure, press on and persevere. Their courage, their resilience and their inner strength inspire me because they are living against all the odds but I am so thankful that God has heard their cries and He has raised up organizations like Precious Women to reach out to them. As 1 John 3:16-18 says: 16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. Indeed Precious Women is choosing to love these girls as Christ loves them--they are not just loving these girls with words or speech but with actions. They are reaching out with His compassion with the hope that He will draw them to Himself, He will lift them up, He will build His kingdom in their hearts and He will give them a new life in Him.