Our first morning in Cambodia, we sat in a jet-lagged haze, as the wonderful Kate Pieper from World Relief briefed us on the next few days ahead. One of the highlights of the trip was to be a night in a village with a Cambodian family, giving us a small taste of what it’s like to be female, poor and HIV positive in this country - something that I felt excited about but also slightly nervous. That apprehension grew when Kate explained that we would be taken there on the back of motorbikes, as the roads to the villages weren’t good enough for a car. And when she produced brightly coloured sarongs and explained that there would be no toilets so we would need these to preserve our modesty as we peed in a field and washed in public by the water pump, I did wonder what we were letting ourselves in for.
The trip was organised by Tearfund for women in the UK to experience something of what life is like for women in a developing country. The nine of us, three from the Sophia Network, hardly knew each other at the start, but quickly bonded through sharing such an amazing experience. The first few days we visited some of the villages where World Relief works. We met women in a care group who pass on health education to their peers using laminated cards with pictures on. Each of them is responsible for visiting ten to 15 local families and their confidence, health, status and relationships with their husbands have all improved as a result. We sat in on an HIV education session for boys led by a young Muslim guy who bravely talked about how to stay free of the virus, with a condom demonstration, and didn’t seem at all phased by us sitting on the back rows. We watched as some energetic children’s workers held the attention of around 200 kids as they taught them about safety and God’s love, while parents and villagers round the edges also took it all in.
And we met Joke van Opstal from World Relief who has set up the Hope programme to combat HIV, which is a brilliant example of what Tearfund call ‘integral mission’, enabling people to develop holistically by caring for their spiritual, physical, social and intellectual needs. Joke (pronounced Yoh-ka) is Dutch but speaks fluent Cambodian having been in the country since 1993, and she was clearly deeply loved and respected by the people in the villages. She took us to visit a cell church, an adult HV support group and a youth group for children affected by HIV. We heard these young people’s stories, through an interpreter, and were incredibly moved when they surrounded us and prayed for us. Joke had arranged for us to have lunch in a village before we were all sent off in pairs to our village hosts. Mandy, Celia and I borrowed sarongs and had a practice pee in the field before we set off, with Celia, who grew up in a village in Ghana, giving us tips on how to aim!
I went with Yioula from Tearfund to stay with Seeyong, a woman who lives with her elderly mother and teenage son. We could speak very little Cambodian and she knew no English, but somehow we managed to communicate. Seeyong had been told not to treat us as special guests but to get us involved in her everyday life. So we cleaned fish, pumped water, fed the piglets in her back garden and chopped palm branches. Seeyong squatted to do most of her tasks, but soon realised that our weedy western legs weren’t quite up to it, so she ended up following us round with red plastic chairs. Seeyong’s mother kept stroking our arms and chattering away to us in Khmer. Everywhere we went, we had an audience of villagers which was fun. Even when we had got ready for bed and were sitting in our pyjamas in our mosquito nets, neighbours kept coming into Seeyong’s house to see her visitors. Yioula and I ended up in fits of giggles, feeling like we were in a zoo! And luxury of luxuries, Seeyong had arranged for us to use her neighbour’s ‘bathroom’ – a concrete hut with a long-drop toilet and a tank of water. Our night in the village was a fantastic and eye-opening experience, and we felt very privileged and humbled to have been so welcomed and cared for. When the nine of us talked together later about our experiences, each of us ended up referring to our hosts as ‘our lady’, which is of course how some Christians speak of Mary, the mother of Jesus. And that seemed very appropriate as there was something holy and inspiring about these women who had welcomed these strangers into their homes and shared their lives with us.
The second half of our trip, we spent time with the Women’s Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, who support and equip women within the churches. We went with them to a very inadequate hospital to offer to pray for some of the patients and to give them some basic supplies. We visited another village where they run Bible study groups, and then we attended a day conference where we heard their stories and tried to offer encouragement and support. Women form the majority of church members, but there are very few women in positions of leadership within the churches. Cambodia has suffered such violence as a country, with the genocide of Pol Pot’s regime in the 1970s. Some of the women we met had lived through that and understandably still carried the weight of that oppression. But again, we were touched by their warmth and welcome and were struck by the energy and determination of the younger women for things to be different.
So we saw firsthand something of what life is like for women in Cambodia, but we picked up other insights almost by accident that told us more - discovering that it is rude for a woman to turn her back on her husband in bed, that even in sleep she must defer to him; seeing the faces of women and children alongside the men who were tortured and murdered in Tuol Sleng prison during Pol Pot’s regime; hearing later about the extent of the trafficking and sex tourism problem in the country; realising that domestic violence is a huge issue but one that is rarely talked about openly. This is a country where ‘women are like flowers and men are like gold’. Sadly, it seemed that for some, the church was a place that perpetuated this discrimination rather than being a place of equality and liberation.
It was such a gift to be able to share these experiences with other women from the UK. Each night we talked about what we’d seen and prayed for each other. We had some great conversations about headship, leadership, confidence, calling and about what we were going to do when we got home. I think the trip gave many of us a sense of perspective; we need to get beyond our wobbles in confidence to develop and use the gifts God has given us. Tearfund were brilliant hosts, particularly as gender and restoring relationships is one of their emphases in their work in the UK and around the world; I felt like they as an organisation ‘get’ the issues that many Christian women face and are actually doing something about them. I hope that we’ll be able to organise another trip like this in the future for Sophia Network members – I’ll keep you posted, but let me know if this is something you’d be interested in.
Jenny Baker is a writer and a co-founder of the Sophia Network