THE TUK-TUK TAKES US TURN AFTER TURN, each street narrower than the one before, until we arrive in a small alley. We go up two flights of steel stairs and enter a shared living space. Printed photos and pictures are taped to the walls. We’re with a social worker who leads us into the corner room where a young mother sits, rocking her 8-month-old child. The baby is peacefully sleeping in a hammock that hangs from the window to the other end of the tiny room. We sit there for a few minutes —me, another Ratanak staff member, the social worker, and mom—cooing and smiling over the baby.
Reaksmy* grew up in rural Cambodia, and at a young age had to stop going to school so she could help support her family. She worked as a house cleaner until her mother forced her into a marriage, perhaps because she thought it would give them another chance to escape their life of poverty. But she was beaten and suffered violent abuse, lonely in a loveless relationship.
Reaksmy ran away and returned to her family, but knew she had to find a job to survive.
She decided to move to Phnom Penh to find work, like so many other Cambodians her age. Desperate, alone, and without an education, many end up working where they are vulnerable to exploitation: garment factories, beer gardens and karaoke TV bars. Away from their families and communities, a staggering 20% of these young women are estimated to have unplanned pregnancies.
Months later, Reaksmy was alone and pregnant. Her boyfriend had left her at the same time her father passed away. “I spent days in this room, crying and unable to sleep,” she told us. She felt so alone.
That was when she heard about Mother’s Heart. “They took care of me, taught me, and gave me hope,” she said.
At the Crisis Pregnancy Center, social workers counsel women, helping them come to a place of healing where they can be good parents to their babies. They also work on family reconciliation so that single mothers and their babies can have healthy support from their extended family and community.
There is so much shame and stigma associated with being pregnant and single in Cambodia, adding to the isolation and vulnerability of a young, frightened mother. Social workers nurture family relationships to ensure continued support for the mom and child, long after they leave the program.
The Crisis Pregnancy Centre also offers monthly classes on bonding and attachment, anger management, healthy relationships, infant care and parenting—education to strengthen the mother’s ability to take care of herself and her child. They are there every step of the way.
Mother’s Day isn’t a positive experience for everyone. To the young women who are still vulnerable, still feeling shamed and alone, being a new mother means more heartbreak than it does new joy. They come feeling like their life is over—heads bowed, they can’t speak or look at staff because of the overwhelming feeling of shame and fear.
But as the days and weeks go by, they come to experience something different and unexpected—hope, worth, belonging. And slowly, they lift their heads.