Through the whole of Cambodian history, Khmer women have been compared to their ethereal divinity known collectively as Apsara. The subtle smile and beauty of the Apsara in the great temples of Angkor illustrates water and purity and the fluidity of the virtuous female. She is portrayed as virtuous, contributing greatly to her family and to the national identity.
Consequences of the decades of war and the Khmer Rouge genocide are many and one of them is the fracturing of Cambodia’s social fabric. Cambodian women lost their traditional role and status. Even though all of suffered, women have had to count more losses.
Today, many Khmer women, especially single mothers, remain shunned and marginalised in absolute poverty with little hope of ever improving their lot. She is unable to protect and provide for even the most basic needs of her children and she suffers greatly as a result. Miserable and lacking self-confidence she can no longer view herself as an image of Apsara.
When we met Bunty*, she had just been left by her husband. She was just 17, and when she announced her pregnancy, he panicked. He told her about his other family, packed his bags and left. She tried to prevent him from leaving, but he hit her so hard, she passed out.
When she woke up, he had left with all their belongings, all their money, and she had nowhere to go. A friend referred her to a shelter. They called us so we could provide her with crisis pregnancy counselling.
“I felt guilty. I thought it was all my fault and I probably deserved everything he had done to me” Bunty* told us between sobs during her first meeting.
She had no self-esteem and our social workers were scared she might fall into a heavy depression. That could lead to her taking drugs, and be the target of human traffickers. Our staff had to take action:
“We told her that we understood her situation was a very difficult one. We met her judgement-free and let her know that she was in a safe place and that we were there for her. We told her that it was alright to be sad, and she had nothing to be ashamed of. We took her in our arms and tried very hard to let her know she mattered.”
We asked her if she wanted to come and live in our women’s home. She agreed.
In her new home, she had the support of other mothers. She met women like her, who survived extremely difficult situations, and yet, are amazing mothers.
As her belly became rounder and rounder, she knew she could rely on Mother’s Heart, our midwife, our social workers; a team of dedicated professionals who had one mission in mind: keeping her safe, respected, and surrounded with care.
Her baby is now 4 months old.
She was at our offices last week because he had the flu. She didn’t panic. She knows she is being supported. She knows she is not alone. She is a beautiful woman, empowered by her motherhood. As beautiful as an Apsara.
*names have been modified to respect anonymity.