When the foreign woman offered to buy her three children for $300, Set Sophy knew she had to change her life.
Before that moment, she thought she could overcome anything. Her husband abandoned her without an explanation, leaving her to fend for her 7-month-old toddler and two other young children. She worked endless hours in a Phnom Penh laundromat and barely made enough money to buy rice at the end of the day. Yet even when she and her children were forced to sleep under the balcony of a house near Pochentong airport, she felt she could survive.
But the woman offering to buy her children was too much.
“I do everything for my children and I cannot sell them,” Set Sophy, 43, said. “I had to escape from that place because I was afraid that woman would come back and steal my children.”
Today, survival is not the first thing on Set Sophy’s mind. She has found refuge on Koh Kor island, a resettlement program run and governed entirely by women.
The noise and cement and uncertainty of Phnom Penh are far behind her, traded for the quiet of country life and narrow dirt paths of Koh Kor. Yet Set Sophy still finds it difficult to tell how she left the streets of the capital and arrived on the island, a former killing field and later a Vietnamese jail for prostitutes.
She was in a panic after the woman offered to buy her children. She roamed the streets of Phnom Penh aimlessly with her children in tow. Eventually an NGO worker referred her to the Hagar Project, a battered women’s shelter that founded the Koh Kor settlement. After six months of job training and psychological counseling, Set Sophy and her children were transferred to the island in the middle of the Tonle Bassac.
The women who complete the Hagar Project’s six-month counseling and training program are given three options at the end of their stay. They can either return to their villages, live and work in Phnom Penh or settle at Koh Kong Island. The women who choose the island are often the “hard luck” cases who cannot live in Phnom Penh or return home, said Pierre Tami, project director at Hagar.
The women of Koh Kor share common stories. Some are ex-prostitutes who were kicked out of the brothels after they became pregnant. Many were abused or raped by a spouse. Others, like Set Sophy, were deserted by their husbands.
Koh Kor island, however, is more than a safe haven for women. According to Tami, Koh Kor is one of the only self-sufficient, autonomous villages in Cambodia run by women, an example of self-determination in a country where women sometimes lack choices.
While the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is starting a year-long campaign to address issues women in Cambodia face such as rape, trafficking and violence—the focus of today’s International Women’s Day—the Koh Kor village serves as an example of how women can overcome the violence they experience.
The 47 women and 100-plus children who live on the island support themselves through both farming and sewing, with the crafts they sew to be sold internationally through the Hagar Project.
Each year, they vote for three leaders who work out disputes that arise at the village. Once, the village leaders settled an argument between two women fighting over a small plot of land. Another time, the leaders had to decide whether or not they would banish a woman from the island who stole two chickens from her neighbor.
The most heated discussions, however, often concern men. When the Phnom Penh municipality first donated the seven hectares of land to the Hagar Project in 1995, two questions were raised by the villagers: If a woman wants to marry, will she be allowed to continue to live at the village; and when children of the women want to marry, will they be allowed to live on the island with their spouse?
The community concluded that women who chose to marry could not remain in the village, but children who marry can stay on the island with their spouses, so long as they live in their mother’s house and men who marry into the community don’t work on the island. But no women have gotten married in the six years that the Koh Kor community has existed and only one girl has married.
“It’s not so common for a woman on the island to want to get married,” Tami said. “If they see a soldier, they get scared. If they see a man, they get scared.”
That fear isn’t unfounded. Almost all the women who live at the shelter are both physically and psychologically traumatized from years of domestic abuse, rape, prostitution or living on the streets, Tami said. Even though they receive six months of counseling at the Phnom Penh-based Hagar Project shelter before they settle at the island, the scars of the past remain.
Similar scars also mark Koh Kor island. Between 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge used Koh Kor island as a prison, the largest in the Sa’ ang district, said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
Most of the prisoners during that time were women accused of “moral offenses,” which included wanting to marry, he said. A red-tiled, wooden house near one of the cabbage fields in the village still holds a pile of bones and skulls pulled from mass graves found on the island.
When the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge from power, the island was again used as a prison, only this time it was called a “re-education center” by the Vietnamese. Prostitutes from Phnom Penh were detained at Koh Kor from 1981 to 1982, Youk Chhang said.
Despite the island’s grisly past, the women have transformed hard earth into a thriving village. Four fish ponds grow upwards of 4,000 fish, numerous fields have been cultivated to grow everything from carrots to corn and the revenues from their sewing brings the women close to $90,000 a year, most of which is returned to the Hagar Project.
Women work throughout the heat of the day, bending down in fields of long beans or throwing grain to some of the fish in the stagnant ponds. Children too are active all day, running from house to house or swinging from the limbs of trees.
Even on the weekends the village is active, especially on Sundays, when the many of the village’s women and children gather inside a makeshift church to pray. Most of the women at the village say they are Christian, a religion brought to them by the Hagar project, a Christian Missionary program.
Although the village has a day-care, there is no school. The school-aged children are ferried across the river and attend school off the island.
Kong Dalin, 17, said her Christianity is what most kids at school tease her about. “I have a lot of friends at school, and they do not discriminate because I have no father,” she said. “But some kids tease me, say “you are a Christian.’”
The Koh Kor resettlement village is so successful that the Hagar Project started a new resettlement program in Kampong Thom last month. The government donated close to 40 hectares for the Kampong Thom resettlement and around 40 families will soon relocate there, despite the fact that the area is still not very well developed.
“We get what we get,” Tami said. “If there are bones and skulls, we will work with that—we never get the prime land, but we will work with it.”
Working with a difficult situation is something that Seak Ny knows well. She was left to care for her six children after her husband died from malaria in 1985. She sold fruit on the streets of Phnom Penh and lived with her children in a squatter’s collective near the banks of the Tonle Sap river. When a fire razed her tent she was forced onto the streets.
Like Set Sothy, Seak Ny eventually found her way to Hagar where she received counseling, food, and eventually moved to Koh Kor. Seak Ny was one of the first women to settle on the island in 1995, and since then has left much of her past behind. Her hopes are mostly for her children, who are now in their late teens and early 20s and live or work on the island. Good jobs and marriage and what she often wishes for them.
Marriage for her, however, is not something she sees in her future. She says that she and the rest of the women in the village are a little fearful of men and happily self-sufficient.
“We don’t want men around because we are afraid they will violate us, rape us,” she said. “And we don’t want men here because we don’t need them…we are strong.”