Srey Neang* was born in 1985 in Kandal, Cambodia and is the oldest of 6 children. Her parents are landless, and survive through meager wages earned as agrarian day laborers. Despite her love of learning, poverty forced Srey to drop out of school in the 6th grade in order to earn money to help feed her siblings. Srey was sent to Phnom Penh by her mother to work as a housemaid and nanny for a distant relative. She worked from 4am to 7pm every day, and took home $10 each month—earning just 2 cents an hour.
Srey moved through a few occupations before learning about an opportunity at a garment factory and after investing in basic sewing training, she landed a job in Svay Pak (a notorious red light district in Phnom Penh) and was able to earn $60 each month. Srey eventually left garment factory work and married, had a child, then divorced her husband before returning to Svay Pak. Srey was back to earning income at a garment factory when her friends began to tell her about the higher wages she could earn if she took a job entertaining and serving men at a local karaoke bar. Though Srey knew she would face harassment and groping from drunk customers, the wage of $110 a month plus $5 to $10 in daily tips was far too good to pass up; by this time, Srey’s son, her mother and three of her younger siblings depended on her earnings for their survival.
Srey hated the work, and faced constant verbal, physical and sexual harassment. “Normally I have to work from 6pm until late night around 2am or 3am and sometimes up to 4am although the closing time is supposed to be 1am,” Srey tells us. “Every four days I have to start work at 1pm. If I am absent for one day on a normal day (6pm-1am time slot), my salary would be cut $5, but if I am absent on the special day (1pm-1am time slot), they will cut my salary $10. I have never been absent so far because I need the $10 bonus at the end of each month for perfect attendance.”
“One of the difficulties of working there is that I have to drink a lot—about nine cans of beer per night—and the alcohol badly affects my stomach. I also have to put up with harassment from clients. They like to kiss and touch me. Plenty of them asked me to go out with them and be their secret lover and promised to support me, but I always reject them. Some of the men get mad and challenge me by offering $100 for one night out and big tips each time they came, but I didn’t accept although other girls did. To me, the fact that I got divorced is already shameful and painful enough, so I don’t want to get involved in any unserious relationship.”
Srey is one of roughly 100 karaoke girls currently participating in our Non-Formal Education and Life Skills program in the hopes of finding a better opportunity. Srey’s teacher tells us that Srey always comes to the class no matter how late she stayed up or how much she had to drink. “The program got my attention because I always loved studying but wasn’t lucky enough to stay in school due to poverty,” shares Srey. “I need to grab this opportunity and study hard because my son is in first grade now and he is going ask me to explain what he doesn’t understand, so I have to be ready and capable enough. I also send my son to English school, so that he won’t have a hard life like me when he grows up.”
When asked what she likes about the class, Srey Neang told us “I enjoy reading and math as before I could not read big words and could only do adding and subtracting but not division and multiplication. Health topics are also very interesting. They teach us how to prevent ourselves from getting STDs and HIV when having more partners and how abortion affects on our health. I also especially enjoy learning about saving and life planning. Before I always wanted to save money but could never manage until learning from my teacher that savings can start small, and we should start doing it right away. Now I am saving in a clay piggybank.”
Srey Neang tells us that her passion has always been to open up her own beauty salon back in her home village, where demand for such services is high and supply is low. Because of her demonstrated commitment and aptitude, Srey was one of five students—selected from a pool of over 100 girls—recently offered a skills training and apprenticeship opportunity in cosmetology.
“I really don’t know how to thank you all enough for this opportunity,” shares Srey. “You are like my parents! You give me knowledge, study materials, skills training, and a bike to get to skills training. You took me to the health center and paid for treatment when I was sick. You motivated and encouraged me to study hard and struggle for my future. I truly appreciate these things!”
*name has been changed at her request
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