Giving Cambodia’s Red Light Workers the ‘Green Light’ to a Brighter Future
One of Lotus Outreach’s greatest strengths is its ability to adapt in response to the needs of local populations. This month’s update on the Non-Formal Education and Life Skills (NFE) program is a great illustration of this quality and its relevance in the lives of our beneficiaries.
Meeting women and children living in the red light areas of Cambodia is always an emotional experience. Their journey is a relentless struggle to survive in an impoverished landscape devoid of opportunity. Most have managed to achieve no more than a few years of primary schooling, and are basically illiterate.
NFE seeks to bridge the divide between a woman’s lack of marketable skills and her quality of life by providing a broad range of learning opportunities for the most desperate communities at suitable times and locations. Through these classes, women coerced by poverty to sell their bodies as a means to feed their children find themselves capable of restoring a sense of dignity to their lives. As one “entertainer” recently told our director of field operations, NFE gives her a chance to “live a normal, peaceful life.”
Healthcare is a critical area attended to by NFE, with basic health classes and regular HIV and STD checkups for sex workers among the myriad services offered. Students learn how infections occur, how to avoid life threatening illnesses like malaria and dengue fever, and standard hygiene practices such as hand washing. In a country where World Vision and Rural Development International report that 70 percent of all deaths are waterborne illness-related, and where UNICEF estimates that only 16 percent of rural Cambodians have access to adequate sanitation, these lessons save lives.
During a recent visit, we were surprised at how many girls rated mathematics as their favorite class. Rarely a favorite in the west, for these students learning the basics of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication puts them on equal footing with those who would exploit them. It means they can calculate interest payments on a loan (which are most often only provided at prohibitive rates of 10 to 20 percent – monthly!) or determine on their own whether they have been properly paid for their work. While we take the ability to figure these things out for ourselves as a given, our NFE students are acutely aware of the impact of rudimentary math on their lives.
While some courses respond to a fixed demand, others evolve in relation to fluctuating needs in the community. We recently acquired four new sewing machines for the popular tailoring skills class, placing one at a karaoke bar and effectively bringing the class to its employees. Another sewing class was added to accommodate 12 women from an infamous red light area, Svey Pak, most of whom have no schooling beyond grade 4. A highly marketable skill, sewing and tailoring are potent weapons to help these women escape the plight of Cambodia’s commercial sex industry.
Another popular initiative is the food preparation and presentation class, which gives women access to another fertile market. With food a constant necessity, we have found in past programs that a small edge in culinary talent can quickly open doors to alternative income and a reliable livelihood. Many of our NFE alumnae have used these skills to become local chefs or even open up their own food vending businesses.
In response to overwhelming demand, we are developing a beauty skills training course. Beauticians adept at doing hair, makeup and nails are competitive and stand an excellent chance of earning a solid income. Requiring little education, it is an optimum fit for our target populations of sex workers, who can benefit enormously from a rapid transition to a career that will generate equal or greater income and allow them to escape the lethal pitfalls of the sex industry. The 22 entertainment workers in our Srey Sros NFE group were thrilled when we told them we were working on providing beauty skills training.
Lastly, to make sure our students’ children can get to school once we enroll them, we are adding a component that has seen resounding success in our formal education programs. We will lend bicycles from our Lotus Pedals program to 26 children from the Trolok Baik red light district, cutting lengthy commutes to schools, facilitating engagement in formal learning and thereby enhancing their chances of breaking out of the poverty cycle.
We thank you for your generous support of the NFE project in Cambodia. Please help us spread the word or consider making an additional donation at http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/nfecambodia/.
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