Of all the stories I was told during my trip to Cambodia, it is this one that has touched me the most. With the amazing Women in Leadership group from Australia, I was there to see how the money raised by Australian Christian women is making a difference in the lives of women, girls and their families living in poverty.
Every one of us shed sorrowful tears as we heard the story of Dara, the girl who wrote a note to her mother telling her she planned to end her life. You see, Dara had a skin condition that marked her body and face. In some communities, even today, these conditions are something to be ashamed of, people assuming you are cursed or being punished for wrong-doing. So as a teenage girl, Dara was ostracised by her friends and neighbours. Feelings of shame and despair overtook her, and she decided to take her own life.
Even recalling Dara’s story now makes me cry. I’ve had to start over again and again just to get through this article. But this was just one of many stories shared by Cambodians that have left a profound impression on me. Little did I know that in just 10 days I could be so impacted by the things we saw, the stories we heard and by the people we met, that I would come home forever changed. I have a whole new perspective on what it really means to live in poverty, and how we really can make a difference in the lives of children, families and whole villages.
We journeyed from Siem Reap and spent time with remote villages and indigenous minority communities in the north-west (near the Thai border) and the far north-east (near the Vietnam border).
There are so many things that the people in the villages don’t have, or don’t know about, or are only just learning about. Things we take for granted. For example, there are whole villages in some areas of the country where there is not one toilet and no access to clean water.
Village elders, community members and the youth spoke of difficulties they face. Struggles with disease and ill-health from open defecation and lack of basic hygiene, child mortality, alcohol abuse and domestic violence, illegal logging and land grabbing, loss of identity, climate change, human trafficking…the list could go on and I haven’t even mentioned the pain still felt from the impact of the civil war and the reign of the genocidal dictator, Pol-Pot.
Despite all that Cambodia has been through, Cambodians are a beautiful people, friendly, and incredibly resilient. And while it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and burdened by the complexities and challenges of this injustice, we’ve seen such hope and progress. The changes that are being made, through our financial and prayer support, are huge.
Health and sanitation workshops leading to a reduction of preventable diseases, literacy programs capturing indigenous languages and agricultural training helping farmers to cope with the impacts of climate change. We met people who have started savings groups where they pool their small amounts of money together and then loan it to buy seeds, buy a pig, even to buy resources to build a toilet. We saw how they are now self-sufficient, growing vegetables, breeding pigs and chickens to support their families.
None of this would have been possible without the projects that are funded and supported in part by what we give at She is… to Baptist World Aid Australia’s Vulnerable Children Fund.
In many cases the impact is more than material. You see, after Dara’s mother found her note, she got in touch with the organisation that Baptist World Aid’s partners with in her area. From that moment, staff visited Dara regularly. She was loved, encouraged and in a practical sense taught how to deal with her condition.
We heard Dara’s story as we stood in a tiny little room that serves as a library for a children’s group. Dara is now the much loved and respected volunteer teacher working in the Baptist World Aid funded project. From being a young girl who thought the only way out was to take her life, growing into a vibrant and encouraging young woman, Dara is a fantastic example to the young girls and boys that she teaches. She now knows what it is to be loved, and is engaged to be married.
Dara’s story touched my heart, but is just a tiny snippet of what we saw in Cambodia. I really look forward to sharing more stories at our Conferences and Camps this year!
Just like the verse from Proverbs 31:8-9, that says “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” and “defend the rights of the poor and needy”, the words of the Brooke Fraser song, Albertine, now have a far greater impact on me than ever before….
Now that I have seen, I am responsible…
I can no longer say that I didn’t know, that I haven’t seen, that I haven’t been told. I am responsible to do what I can, to give what I can, to pray, to spread the word, to defend the rights of the poor and needy, to speak out for justice.
Will you join me today, this International Women’s Day, to #BeBoldForChange and do whatever it is you can do, give, pray, defend and speak out for justice for women and girls struggling with despair and poverty?