Empower At-Risk Girls in Cambodia

by Senhoa Foundation

A few months ago, I would not have believed that I was going to spend my day-to-day with a group of young girls who are real examples of success, the real lotus flowers. Four months ago, I landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia, without knowing what to expect: in my head, the words “management,” “evaluation,” “finance,” “artisans” and “monitoring” were circling around and around, always thinking in terms of numbers, challenges, aims, results, results, results… then, 12 young girls - the amazingly talented jewelry artisans – turned my thoughts into “hope,” “dreams,” “team,” “thrive,” “future” and “yes, we can!” I am Allin Delgado, Country Director of Senhoa in Cambodia, a Mexican learning every day from 12 beautiful lotus flowers and the most passionate and committed staff ever!

I started working with Senhoa in July 2014 and was lucky to be witness to one of the Jewelry Program’s biggest milestones yet in Cambodia: our launching event of the Senhoa Jewelry Brand in Siem Reap. Since 2010, and through many challenges, we have transitioned from being an NGO with a Vocational Training Program for at-risk Cambodian and Vietnamese women, into a social enterprise. The main goal for many non-profits, we have achieved it.

Throughout the past 4 years we have provided our artisans guidance for personal and professional development, opportunities and tools to reconstruct their self-confidence. Senhoa has been working hand-in-hand with each one of the girls not just teaching the most advanced skills in jewelry making, but seeking to revive “that” spark in their eyes when they dream about the future and they express “It is possible.”

Senhoa, as a whole organization, has been a role model for the girls as well: changes are always for the better, changes lead us on our way, changes represent development and a clear path to walk on. Thanks to an amazing team in California, our partners and supporters - like Global Giving - that have been working very hard to fundraise for the Jewelry Program, Senhoa in Cambodia has a new office with a spectacular showroom displaying every piece of our collections and the artisans’ original jewelry line called “OOH - Our Own Hands.”

Also, the artisans are working in their new design studio since August – upstairs from Senhoa’s office – with a beautiful view to the Siem Reap River, a workshop that is a safe haven where they can share their dreams, where they can break the barriers of dreaming higher, where they can trust that Senhoa is not “just an employer” but an organization that will push its own limits to give them the quality of life, support and life and professional skills that they need to become empowered women and, why not, young entrepreneurs, jewelry or fashion designers, their own brand.

Khmer society, as I perceive, is a little bit reluctant to changes, maybe due to the heartbreaking history. During this moving process, plus a new Country Director, production on our new EM Collection, the day-to-day challenges of any start-up, and a new Production Coordinator - who, by the way, was one of the artisans! -, the girls and the staff were confused of what was happening. It has been a constant learning process for all of us to cope with the changes and understanding that those changes symbolize Senhoa’s development. But like the lotus flowers they are, they emerged successfully from changes and realized that all this means: “maybe I can learn sales and improve my creativity for new designs…” or “look! That is my piece that is being sold!”

Now the artisans have a small Sales Team composed of artisans who are interested in learning sales skills, customer service and practicing English with visitors and clients. The Designers Team is encouraged every day to draw, imagine, research on internet and create their own designs and teach the rest of the girls. With the help of Dara, our Social Worker, the girls have daily counseling. Senhoa wants the best of the best for the artisans, and we are on our way.

The girls achieve small goals every day without them even noticing; just 2 days ago, the quietest girls, always afraid to speak, introduced themselves to a visitor – in English! –laughing and without hesitation. These small achievements are the whole reason why Senhoa keeps growing, including them in Senhoa’s self-development: they haven’t pictured that, what comes from their own hands, is an astounding and glamorous product in which - we believe - belongs to the high fashion industry and runways around the world.

Now, they are in the process of believing it: they are skilled, they are capable, they are dreaming, and Senhoa trusts in their capacity. Small steps are leading them to learn more new skills, like *Sara*, who has become a Production Coordinator since September; She is now creating reports, Excel spreadsheets, emails in English, etc. all that combined with studies preparing for University next year!; or like *Tanya* who was a very bright but rebellious girl, recently became a Supervisor. She checks quality control and teaches the girls the more intricate techniques. Her compassionate manner and her leadership skills are blooming. She is becoming a wonderful team leader and extremely responsible!

We are committed to improving these wonderful 12 lotus flowers’ lives and, hopefully, more in the following years. What I have found during these past 4 months is that Senhoa’s Jewelry Program is not just a Vocational Training Program, but a whole package of resources, tools and support guiding these young ladies to believe in their capacities, to believe that they are beautiful inside and outside, to believe that they are already on the way to empowerment, and to believe that all Senhoa’s team believe in them.

*Names were changed.

My name is Sylvia. I work in Senhoa's Head Office in Huntington Beach, California but was given the privilege and opportunity to lead the jewelry program, in Cambodia for 6 months. I eagerly accepted and am forever grateful for the experience. Beyond living in a new place, being immersed in a new culture daily and seeing our work as it is on the ground (and not just through daily emails and Skype calls to the field team), the intimate interactions with our field staff and service users and what I learned from them will forever stay with me. 

Acclimating to Third World conditions amidst a growing tourist town was a lesser challenge; cultural differences--how different from what you are used to in the Western world is not necessary worse or needs improvement--was slightly more difficult to grasp. Above that was the delicate balance between catering to our artisans' needs, extending continual grace and being sensitive to their situations AND managing a productive and efficient business and teaching the girls to be good employees and not coddle or debilitate them by allowing irresponsibility or bad habits to develop.

Leading the girls was an amazing, fun and challenging experience and there were many lessons to be learned. Possibly the most important lesson was a reflection of the girls' own experiences: healing and moving on from the past and looking forward to the future.

In our descriptions of what Senhoa does, we had always written that we support survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. We said that we are in a fight against modern slavery. We use bold and dramatic language that get our point across. We know that donors and supporters, particularly in the West, need to feel connected to a cause; they want to hear about the brutal stories. They want to feel like they are helping bring change to a harrowing cause. In short, we needed these strong words to sell and market our cause, to bring awareness to our mission.

Being in Cambodia, I felt differently. Those strong, dramatic words, describing the "victims" that we worked with and their situations, however true, were not helping us move forward. They were holding us back, continually labeling and exploiting the girls (although not deliberately), reminding them that this is who they are and where they've been. It is ok to acknowledge the past, but we must make efforts to move forward and look to the future. We need to focus on the girls' accomplishments, how far they've come, the dreams they want to pursue going forward. We need to empower them.

More than that, the girls were beginning to be more involved in the business, helping with sales, talking to customers at a weekend market we started selling their jewelry at. Visitors were coming into the design studio to see their artwork, to see them working hard at their craft, watch these amazing jewelry pieces being created by these talented girls. How could we continue to use the language that we used in front of the girls, whom we were teaching English to?

In July we had a launch event in Siem Reap for Senhoa Jewelry. Our artisans were all there, dressed to the nines and beautiful, so excited to watch the first-ever live fashion show they've ever seen. Better yet, this show showcased their work, their art. It was an incomparable experience watching the pride and sparkle in their eyes as 250 people gathered for an event to celebrate their work and their accomplishments.

We needed to do a short presentation before the fashion show which included a speech on what the Senhoa jewelry program was all about. It sounds rather silly now, given all of the different challenges I've faced since being in Cambodia, but I remember thinking in that moment of preparing for the presentation, I felt that THIS was the hardest moment. Figuring out what to say about the girls and this program when they are right there in front of you. In the past we have many scripts prepared, all utilizing the descriptions that I've provided above. But now, what to say to describe what we do and who we work with, when the girls are watching and listening to you?

We decided to say the truth, we work with young women who have gone through many hardships and have had few opportunities growing up. We are here to provide them with the tools they need to move forward from their pasts and live independently and take care of themselves and their families. And more than that, to live out their dreams.

Dreams are difficult to live out when you constantly hear these words about yourself. We cannot shield them from the words we use to describe our programs. We are not in the business of keeping them in the dark. As we learned this, we are effectively making efforts to change the language on our website and marketing channels to reflect change and moving toward the future and less on victimization and labeling. We are not perfect and are constantly learning, but we strive to inspire growth and make our girls feel comfortable, safe, happy and free.

(*Note: Names have been changed to protect the girls' privacy)
In 2010, Tida* was a slight, fearful and anxious girl who rarely spoke and always looked to the floor, averting others’ gazes. Her stepfather routinely beat her and her mother when he was drunk and kicked Tida out of their house. One month, he kicked her out 20 times. She could not sleep, had trouble eating and carried a chronic cough from untreated Tuberculosis. She had never been to school a day in her life.
Tida’s mother helped the family get along by traveling around Siem Reap and offering to
do people’s laundry and providing “cao gió,” a traditional Vietnamese medical
treatment in which the skin is scraped to produce light bruising and, as it is believed in
popular tradition, to release unhealthy elements from injured areas and stimulates
blood flow and healing. Tida’s stepfather took on odd jobs, just as fishing or driving
moto-taxis, when he wasn’t drunk, which wasn’t very often. Tida herself worked long
hours in the heat doing construction manual labor for $2 a day. With her frail body and
declining health, it was a wonder how she managed it.
One day Tida’s friend Dara* referred her to Senhoa’s social worker. Dara told us that her
friend desperately needed a safe job that would pay her more money to help out her
family and also a safe place to stay when her stepfather would kick her out of the family
home during one of his drunken rampages. Our social worker met Tida on a
blistering day in 2010 and it was determined that Tida was a good fit for our Lotus
House and Jewelry and Life Skills Training programs. Senhoa helped Tida receive
immediate medical care of her TB, she moved into the Lotus House and started training
to become a jewelry artisan at OOH, and the rest is history...
Today Tida is Senhoa’s top-paid artisan. Although she is somewhat slow in her work due
to her past trauma, she loves to make jewelry and the quality of her work is impeccable.
She is very diligent about creating high-quality work and is a talented designer. Her TB
has been treated, she has gained weight and appears more healthy and vibrant and has
started learning how to read and write Khmer. Tida now raises her head when she
speaks to others and exudes more confidence; she does very well in her Life Skills classes. She has since moved out of her abusive family home and now rents a room on her own. Tida wants her mother to move out of the house and stay with her, but her mother is reluctant to leave her husband. For now, Tida will continue to work hard and save money to be able to help her mother, hopefully someday soon.
Artisans at work
Artisans at work

In early 2013, Senhoa carried out vigorous Monitor and Evaluations (M&Es) of our programs in Cambodia to ensure that they were delivered to the service users’ satisfaction, as well as adhered to our core mission. Today, we share with you here our M&E results for the Senhoa Jewelry Program and their follow-ups.

The Senhoa Jewelry Program (lovingly named OOH – Our Own Hands) was initially conceptualized as a shelter-retention program. Very early on when we did our needs assessment, it was decided that a vocational training program was needed where the women could gain instant skills and quickly have access to income-generating opportunities, all while they were receiving social and therapeutic services from our shelter partners. Jewelry making and beading were chosen for  ease of skill acquisition, as they required little to no education. This was befitting because many of the women in the program lacked formal education and literacy. 

During the M&E sessions for the OOH program, there was an overwhelming request for full time employment from the service users. Many of the women in the program expressed a desire for viable employment and an opportunity to enter into full-time work as Artisans. 

To respond to these concerns, over the past six months, the OOH program has functioned as a training and transition program to recruit and prepare Trainees to become Artisans for Senhoa Social Enterprise. At the end of the program, Trainees will have a command of basic to intermediate jewelry making skills and knowledge about being good employees. The training period has been used to transition Trainees/Artisans from “service users” into “full-time/part-time employees” for Senhoa Social Enterprise.

On January 1, 2014, we officially started Day 1 of the social business in Cambodia. Our former service users are now full time and part-time employees of the social enterprise, with access to an array of employee benefits and entitlements like access to a health fund, sales bonuses, annual leave and compassionate leave. Furthermore, the artisans work in a safe and secure environment with fair wage salary and educational opportunities. And last but not least, proceeds from the sale of Senhoa jewelry go back to supporting Senhoa Foundation’s community development programs in Cambodia. 

On the other end of the spectrum, Senhoa Social Enterprise is now able to focus on designing, manufacturing and retailing high quality fashion accessories for the Senhoa brand, the OOH by Senhoa brand (a lower-priced line available for sale in Cambodia), and partner labels. Our dream is to be able to have our jewelry sold around the world in department stores, to be able to subcontract to make jewelry for private labels and most importantly, to be able to provide jobs for vulnerable women. We do this with the unfailing belief that access to dignified and safe employment is the most powerful armor to protect women from exploitation and human trafficking.

Artisan at work
Artisan at work
Charmed by Senhoa pendant necklace
Charmed by Senhoa pendant necklace
Tara Teng, Miss World Canada, in Kelly necklace
Tara Teng, Miss World Canada, in Kelly necklace


There is much exciting news from the last quarter regarding our programs in Cambodia!  First of all, the Lotus House is at full occupation.  The Lotus House is a safe house for young women who have been subjected to violence or exploitation.  With a focus on restoration and reintegration, Lotus House primarily receives referrals from NGOs or relevant bodies after a woman has received initial crisis services, such as legal support and health checks.  We are so happy to be able to help the most women to our capacity at the time being.

A second Lotus Kids' Club has opened in October.  We serve an additional 25 families with this second location, now helping a total of 68 families (with the first LKC). Our early-intervention on human trafficking and education program has grown considerably since 2010 and includes a Pre-School Program, a Sponsorship Program, a Family Program and a Community Drop-In Program.  We also underwent a Monitor & Evaluation with This Life Cambodia to evaluate the program and also identify areas in which we are succeeding and areas we still need to improve upon.

The evaluation findings are here: The cross-cultural component of the LKC program, which involves bringing together Vietnamese and Khmer children and their families to learn and socialize, has proven highly successful.  Although this aspect of the program has created some challenges for staff, it has also been one of the most rewarding aspects of the program, with most LKC staff and parents praising this component of the program for creating more harmony and solidarity in the community.  Furthermore, the Pre-School Program appears to be very successful in terms of preparing children for entry to primary school, and providing nutritional supplements and health care.  The Sponsorship Program, on the other hand, while successfully providing opportunities for Pre-School Program children to continue their schooling, has been shown to require extra resources and support for children and their families to ensure children can stay at school.  The Family Program was reported to be very successful in terms of education sessions being useful for participants, and all families appreciating the 16kg of rice provided monthly, however, all parents reported they would continue to attend education sessions even if they weren't receiving rice.  The Community Drop-In Program whilst successfully providing recreational activities for up to 50 children four times a week, does however, have many issues that require addressing in order for this component of the program to be delivered successfully for program beneficiaries.  It is recommended that Senhoa and LKC should spend a considerable amount of time and energy focused on clarifying the purpose of this aspect of LKC, to ensure the best possible outcomes for children attending this program.  Finally, in terms of program beneficiaries, this evaluation has highlighted how important health care checks have been in determining health issues and prevention, with more than 2/3 of children showing dental decay issues, and 1/3 requiring vision re-testing.  Ensuring health check processes are consistent and tailored to the needs of program beneficiaries would however improve the outcomes for children.

Our third field program, the Jewelry/Life Skills Program, is a holistic rehabilitation program that prepares survivors of human trafficking and other marginalized women for reintegration. We offer two components of training: Jewelry Vocational Training and Life-Skills Training.  This program is now moving forward to become a social enterprise.  We have partnered with Siem Reap hotelier Shinta Mani to staff 15 full-time artisans (who will also receive health and paid holidays benefits) to create beatiful jewelry for the Senhoa LLC line, co-brands, and the Our Own Hands line (orginal pieces designed by the artisans themselves as opposed to our Creative Director or collaborators).  We are very excited as we take on this new project.  We are so happy to be able to provide full-time employment for all of the trainees and artisans in our program (the trainees will graduate from their program to become artisans and/or supervisors in December 2013).  We look forward to further building the jewelry program so that we can continue to provide employment and benefits, education and scholarships to private school for the girls in the program.


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Organization Information

Senhoa Foundation

Location: Artesia, CA - USA
Website: http:/​/​senhoa.org
Project Leader:
Lisa T.D. Nguyen
Executive Director
Artesia, CA Cambodia

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