A few years ago, I spent 6 months (0ver 2 years) volunteering and writing a research paper at an NGO in Phnomn Penh, Cambodia. Womyns Agenda for Change worked incredibly hard to support the empowerment of local sex workers and garment workers - ordinary, brave women burdened by poverty and weighed down by the responsibility of caring for their families. Some were still in their mid teens.
"Empowerment" is an oft quoted, and rarely substantiated characteristic of Western aid programs. But in this instance, thanks to the right support (and the amazing Rosanna Barbero), the women themselves made this a reality. Previously isolated and stigmatised, they began to join forces in a grassroots movement to agitate for social change, dignity, rights and a life free from discrimination and harassment.
My researched centred around the sex worker program - Women's Network for Unity. At the end of my time there, a splintered, geographically isolated group of women had morphed into a social collective numbering more than 5,000. Through this grassroots network, they provided each other with emotional support, education and assistance. They came together for collective decisionmaking, lobbied government, campaigned loudly on World AIDS Day and celebrated with each other on International Womens Day.
All this against a backdrop of poverty and adversity. And all without the tools of social media that have become so central to the modern day notion of a collective. It was one of the most inspiring times of my life.