“This girl, see she’s a bad girl”. Even the people who love us can sometimes say destructive things. Chantee’s mother was trying to convince the other people in the hospital of Chantee’s character even as she’d taken time to attend the delivery and care for her daughter during her recovery in hospital. Never mind that the poor girl had just undergone a C-section to deliver her transverse baby.
Life for Chantee had been daily insults since her mother found out she was pregnant. Her mother loved her but couldn’t over look Chantee’s misconduct. Chantee had become pregnant after a one-night stand with a young man she had met while working in a roadside shop. He had little idea of his responsibility. According to Cambodian culture, if one family member does something bad, they will bring more misfortune on the rest of the family. Because of this, Chantee’s mom blamed her for anything bad that happened in the family. She was furious. Being pregnant outside of marriage would bring misfortune on her and the rest of the family. Her relentless harsh words drove Chantee to move in with her aunt until the birth of her baby was imminent.
Mother’s Heart helped with her delivery, post-natal care, vaccinations and later formula while Chantee worked. A partner organization trained her to be a cleaner and she worked at that job for about a year while her baby was at Mother’s Heart daycare.
Mother’s Heart also helped Chantee mend her relationship with her mum, encouraging forgiveness. And Chantee worked hard to repair things with her mother. Their relationship improved enough that Chantee moved back home where her mum cared for her baby while Chantee worked in a well paid sales job.
The relationship with her mom was not the only restored relationship. Chantee has married her baby’s dad. After delivery he began to help Chantee out with some bills, showing an interest in the baby and making a life together. It took Chantee a long time to trust he was serious because he hadn’t proven so in the past. Her baby was over two years old when she decided ‘yes’ to marry him. Mother’s Heart was invited to join in their celebration and witness their mended relationship.
Chantee’s mother hasn’t completely forgiven her for getting pregnant, but Chantee chooses to show her love and to be a dutiful Cambodian daughter by helping her mom financially. Chantee continues to have a good relationship with her husband, secure well-paid work and their daughter is in preschool.
Leakana came to MH almost at term. She was an amiable, fun loving, simple woman with a big personality. She was also a sex worker, addicted to drugs, HIV positive, and clearly stated that she did not want to change her life. Her boyfriend and the father of the baby was abusive and also her pimp, but she loved him and said she could not live without him no matter now abusive he was. She wanted MH to help pay for her delivery and that was all.
Leakana went into labor the day before Christmas. Staff were at a Christmas party and rushed to the hospital to see her. Leakana didn’t have money to deliver her baby and her baby needed to be on ART for six weeks to prevent HIV transmission. He also needed to be on formula instead of breast milk. She was given a choice. If she agreed to stay in a shelter for 6 weeks while her baby could receive consistent ART (decreasing his chances of contracting HIV) then MH would agree to pay for her delivery and provide her with formula. Leakana cried and cried. She only wanted money for delivery. She didn’t want to go into a shelter or come into MH program, be she reluctantly agreed to stay in the shelter so her baby received ATR and formula feeding. He was born on Christmas day.
MH reached out to her family but they wanted nothing to do with Leakana. She had been verbally and emotionally abusive to them, even stealing from them. They wanted no more of her. They didn’t want to take any responsibility for the situation she was in. Her mom was especially angry with her because Leakana had already sold her first baby.
Staff continued to work with the family, counseling them and reaching out to them. They also counseled Leakana as well. They helped her bond with her baby and taught her about responsibility as a mom. Eventually, through perseverance staff slowly repaired the relationship between Leakana and her mom. Leakana’s mom did not fully trust her yet so didn’t invite Leakana to live in her home, but invited her to live close in their community and paid for her to rent a room. Grandma got to know the baby and began to love him. She also started to forgive Leakana. After time passed, she invited Leakana to move into her home.
But Leakana really struggled to remain out of the sex industry and away from her abusive partner, so she ran away with her him, taking her baby with her. MH staff feared for the baby’s safety so tracked her down. They found her in a drug den high on drugs. Her partner had left her so she wanted to move home. Once again staff worked to repair Leakana’s relationship with her family. But once again she ran away. This time she left her baby. Staff asked the family if they wanted to raise the baby or if they wanted MH to find another family to raise the baby. MH would continue providing formula for the baby. The baby’s first HIV test showed that he was HIV negative, but nothing is conclusive until a later test is done when the baby is 1 ½ years old. Leakana’s sister was not sure about what decision to make. She cared for her nephew but wasn’t sure if she could raise a baby who was HIV positive. She asked for some time to make the decision and started to raise the baby in the meantime. She soon fell in love with him as if he were her own. Staff asked her again if she wanted to raise the baby or put him with another family. This time she had an answer. She would raise and love him whether he was HIV positive or not.
The tests of the baby’s final, conclusive viral load just came back. He is HIV negative! The family is so happy. They would have loved him no matter the test results but they rejoice that he can live a long, healthy life. Even if Leakana has not been reconciled to her family, she has called to say that she knows her sister will be a good mom to her baby and love him like her own. She is happy that he will grow up in a loving home.
We hope that one day Leakana will make the decisions to leave her life and return home.
Never underestimate the resiliency and determination some women have to become loving, responsible mothers. When women first come to Mother’s Heart, sometimes we have trouble picturing them ever being able to parent a baby. We have hope always but even we can underestimate what some women will draw on to change their lives.
Like many young rural women, Konika arrived in Phnom Penh at thirteen years old to work as a domestic servant in the home of a distant relative. The cultural expectation for Konika is that she will help with the family income and maybe her siblings can have a chance at education.
While there, her relative attempted to rape her.
For Konika this is equivalent to personal failure. Unmarried with possible loss of virginity leaves her without social status or value. This is virtually a ticket into the sex industry. Konika ran away and began work in a Phnom Penh red light area. Fellow sex workers usually help out by getting you started on yama, a euphoric methamphetamine that makes you more productive and helps you cope with unpleasant clients and long hours. It is also chronically addictive, suppresses appetite and withdrawal induces severe depression (Barrett, 2006).
Konika’s life became a pursuit of money to feed her habit and support her boyfriend. In and out of NGOs, different work places, and women’s shelters, Konika could cling to nothing strong enough to help her fight addiction and all that goes with life in sex work.
It was when she found out she was four months pregnant that change really began - not immediate or fast but it was there. She now had someone to live for. Konika found a shelter, returned to work, and connected with Mother’s Heart.
Trust did not come easily to Konika. Because of her previous haphazard interaction with NGOs, she automatically mistrusted Mother’s Heart staff. She gave most of her salary to her boyfriend and occasionally relapsed into drug use. Sick and malnourished, disinterested in taking medicine, Konika would fall asleep at counseling sessions. Yet the farther along she got in her pregnancy, the harder she tried.
It was at delivery that Konika really changed. A tiny, utterly dependent baby provided the way for Konika to trust, accept love and open up to Mother’s Heart staff. She came to see how others had tried to help her and that she was receiving true unconditional help now.
Drug use had impaired Konika’s memory and comprehension. An NGO graciously offered a trial period of vocational training in the hope that Konika could understand instructions and complete tasks. She did it. She passed her trial period and is now in full time training.
Konika has been transformed. So sullen and unresponsive to begin with she is an engaging young woman who gets along well with others, cares for herself and diligently cares for the baby who allowed her to discover the power of hope.
Barrett, M. E. (2006). Nature and Scope of Substance Use among Survivors of Exploitation in Cambodia: An Assessment. Phnom Penh: The Asia Foundation.
For this report, GlobalGiving has challegned us to tell a story of one way we have failed, and what we have learned from that failure. It can be embarrassing and even painful to admit failure, but by examining our failures we can take steps to move forward into success.
Jana came to Mother’s Heart three years ago five months pregnant. She was a sex worker asking for a way out of that life. Desperate to help her pursue the life of dignity she wanted, we eagerly helped her fulfill her dreams.
As Jana was from a small remote village where there were no vocational training options or programs she could enter to gain work skills. When she stated that she wanted to open a small business selling rice porridge, we counseled her through that decision and made the necessary arrangements to get her started. Having no money herself or a means of earning any besides her previous job, Mother’s Heart decided to provide Jana with everything she needed: tables, pots, bowls, and spices. This was our first experience setting a woman up in her own business. To our inexperienced minds, $300 was a small amount to pay if it meant Jana could have the life she wanted as a new mom.
However, our haste was our downfall. Our eagerness brought failure. Our good intentions blinded us to the reality of Jana’s situation. We neglected to ask the right questions. Did Jana have the support she needed to leave sex work? Did she have the knowledge or will to run a small business? Did Jana want to be a mom? If we had taken the time to ask these questions and probe for honest answers, we would have found that Jana already had two other children who she was not caring for, that she needed more support to follow through on her decision to leave her previous job, that she was not ready to open a small business, and that she could barely keep her house clean let alone run a porridge stall.
Our mistakes soon came to light and unfortunately our failure had far-reaching ramifications. Jana sold her shop supplies and gave her baby away. We failed, so Jana failed.
Mother’s Heart takes full responsibility for what happened, and we have learned from this failure. To make sure we never make this mistake again, we complete a full assessment with each woman by talking to her family and village chief to learn her history. We now know the importance of taking our time with every case, investigating each woman’s strengths and struggles, helping her figure out what she can be successful at. By learning from our failure with Jana, we have been successful setting up small businesses with other women such as sugar cane cart, noodle cart, and dessert stand. We learned how to support these women in the right ways as we now understand what it takes to help a new mom enter a new life.
The following is a postcard from Charissa Murphy, GlobalGiving's In-the-Field Representative in Southeast Asia, about her recent visit to Mother’s Heart in Cambodia.
Rocking the baby, his breaths slow, irregular, and almost trapped within him, a terrified grandmother rocked him tightly in her arms as she explained how the baby fell two meters down stairs after an electrical fire erupted in their building the night before. This was not only what I walked in to witness at Mother's Heart at the start of the day, but I also observed the Mother's Heart staff walking into this same crisis as well. Before we even introduced ourselves to one another, the staff's unconditional care and support for the women and families it supports opened in front of me. They immediately asked questions to understand the baby's condition and the events that unfolded since the fire. Using their professional experience and training, they suggested that the mother and grandmother immediately take the baby to the only free prenatal care facility in all of Cambodia, accompanied there by members of the Mother's Heart team who would wait until the patient and family were provided guidance or care. Though the queues for this facility are usually very long and no one except for the family and baby would be allowed entrance, Katrina, Mother’s Heart founder, informed me that they should be given priority since the baby was younger than three months old and in a life-threatening state. Mother's Heart quickly called for reliable transportation and took the family for emergency help.
Although they deal with crises like this everyday and they are professionals in the support they provide, the Mother's Heart team members are also human. They worried about the baby's health and survival throughout the day. If I was looking for confirmation of the organization's impact on the women and families that it supports, I absolutely gained that today.
After learning about the services that Mother's Heart provides, including a) over-the-phone counseling, b) in-person counseling and its social work program, and c) its Pregnancy Support Program, and hearing the terrifying truth that one-in-five women have unwanted or unplanned pregnancies in Cambodia, the need for free access to support for these women was (heartbreakingly) clear for me. Mother's Heart system for evaluating, determining and offering awareness of options, and providing support was organized and effective. It is evident that they have developed programming that works, which is highlighted further by the number of stories they shared of women who were so empowered while receiving Mother's Heart's care that they now securing healthy (non-sex-related) jobs, reconnecting with their families, and choosing to live on their own or with family rather than in abusive relationships, while also being positive parents to their children.
With Mother’s Heart, I was able to visit a few of the mothers with newborns and one soon-to-be mother who was expecting her baby soon. I cannot explain how amazed I was with how much positive help Mother’s Heart provides. From counseling to medical support to living and baby supplies, to housing, transport, and after birth care, they do not ignore any potential needs. Gosh, I want to have my future babies under Mother’s Heart support! Each woman was overwhelmingly grateful to have Mother’s Heart by their side throughout it all, helping them stand on their own two feet as they help their own child discover theirs.
Upcoming Event on GlobalGiving - TODAY, this Wednesday, July 16th, is a Bonus matching day!:
Today, July 16th (Wednesday), beginning at 9AM EDT, GlobalGiving will match 40% of any donations (of up to $1,000 from any individual donor) to Mother’s Heart. There are $130,000 in total funds available for matching that day for all of GlobalGiving’s partners. To ensure your donation is matched before the funds run out, please consider donating early today shortly after 9AM.
I want to thank the Mother’s Heart for allowing me to visit!
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