Today is International Women’s Day. Cambodia loves their national holidays but this year the 8th March falls on a Sunday so the government have declared tomorrow (Monday) a day off instead. I won’t begin to go into how ironic it is that Cambodia goes to such lengths to acknowledge this day … But the day did give me inspiration for this blog post.
I live very close to one of Phnom Penh’s signature market, Psar Tuol Tum Pong, or the Russian Market. Every weekend without fail I am there to buy one thing or another and over the past seven months, I have developed friendships with many sellers in the market. There are several reasons why these relationships are very special to me. Firstly, the market is laid out in clusters of merchandise and once you become a frequent patron of one stall holder, the neighbours stop pestering you to buy their identical products. Secondly, by ensuring they receive your repeat business, you get a much better price. Finally, they are so nice!! As soon as they spot me, they have the biggest smiles on their faces and these smiles remain in place even if I’m just passing through and not buying anything that particular day.
All of my sellers are women, working day in, day out, to provide their family with a good life. These include: Srey Mom (postcard lady), Sondab (nut lady), Sukunthy (DVD lady), Somphayt (dress lady), Srey Neang (coffee lady), Sok Ang (salad lady), Srey Pich (jackfruit lady) and noodle lady (whose name I don’t actually know). As a side note, “srey” means woman in Khmer. I went around the market yesterday getting photos with all of these ladies for this blog so skip to the bottom for them – and no I have not grown, they’re just all really tiny!! Many of my sellers have children, some of whom help their mothers out in the market when they are not attending school. The women all speak very good English, although I try to use as much Khmer as possible with them, simply for practice, and they are always eager to help me out when I get stuck! Market hours are long and the stalls are open daily. Every morning they arrive at about 6:30am to set out their stock and prepare for the customers. Then every evening, at about 5pm, they must pack everything away again, ready for the next day. Sondab (nut lady) doesn’t go home straight away either, instead she and a friend run a smoothie stall outside throughout the evening.
I know very little about my ladies’ home life, except for Srey Mom (postcard lady). She used to work along the main tourist corridor within the market, carrying her postcards, artwork and books for sale in a plastic box hung around her neck by a thick piece of cloth. I’ve picked it up and it must have been back breaking work. I first met Srey Mom in 2009 and, as an avid postcard writer, soon became a regular customer. When I returned in 2012, I sought her out and she recognised and seemed happy to see me. Soon after I returned and found her again in 2014, Srey Mom opened an actual shop! She now sells a lot more products and is able to earn more money without carrying around several kilos of postcards every day. If I ever need something slightly obscure from the market, I always ask Srey Mom where to get it because she literally knows everyone. She’s definitely my favourite market lady!
The first thing you notice about Srey Mom is the severe skin damage to her face and neck. Sadly neither of the photos I have of her fully show the extent of the burn, but the skin is marred over much of her face, down her neck, and onto her chest. The traditional punishment for adulterous women in Cambodia is to have acid thrown in their face, thereby ensuring that no man will desire them again. Their husband will divorce them, making them spinsters for the rest of their lives. Srey Mom’s injuries seem consistent with acid exposure so I always assumed that was what had happened to Srey Mom until a couple of months ago … I arrived at her stall one Saturday afternoon and could immediately tell that she was a little down. I asked her what was wrong and she told me that her husband had beat her the night before because he had been drunk. She said that he has a serious drink problem, beats her regularly and takes most of her money earned at the market to spend on alcohol. Sadly, domestic violence is an all too common occurrence in Cambodia and most women feel, or are, powerless to remove themselves from their situation. Srey Mom’s husband doesn’t work and simply relies on her to provide for his addiction and their two children. She then said that they’d been married at the age of eighteen. This confused me as I didn’t think a husband would stay with an adulterous wife in Cambodia, and therefore my acid theory was called into question. Despite considering Srey Mom a good friend, I do not feel comfortable enough to explicitly ask what happened to her, it just seems too personal, too intimate, too taboo. At least by western standards. So unless she offers up the information, I suspect I will never know what happened to her. But I do know that I will continue my loyalty to her, and my postcard writing addiction, despite now knowing that I am supporting her husband’s alcoholism.
My question, on International Women’s Day, is why has Srey Mom not left her husband? She earns a good living in the market so why can she not take her two adorable children and make a new life for them all? Why does this country not consider it socially acceptable for a woman to raise her children alone, even if she is able to support them both emotionally and financially? Why do hardworking, loving, sweet, intelligent women feel obliged to stay with abusive, lazy, ungrateful men? Why is the priority of the Cambodian government getting as many national holidays granted as possible rather than providing support and guidance for victimised women?