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Published: June 22nd 2006
What a shit of a day I have had, I think, as the unusually rude parking attendant rushes me along, wanting my bike out at this very instance. Don't push it, buddy, my patience is wearing rather thin today.
I had been to visit an organistion, whose director had proceeded to offer our centre coordinator, Nika, a job, whilst his assistant distracted me at the other end of the room. The cheek! The rudeness! I mean, I was at the stage where I was strongly starting to believe that the world of development had more corporate, capitalist pigs in it than the one I had come from. One has to excuse me for having had the naive idea that people actually chose development, first and foremost, because they were GOOD people who wanted to help others, but my naivety was waning. Another organisation I could cross off the list. I was not going to lower my standards to having to deal with a man who didn't have the courage to do things the moral, decent way. But what was...
I was jolted awake from my whining daydream by the sight of a young girl who looked strikingly similar to Sopea, the 27yo Khmer woman I had met over the weekend in Kampot. The unknown lady watched me peddle by on my bike in the drizzle, the lines on her face telling of her hardship. It instantly took me back to the second-floor room, in which I sat on a matt with Sopea, Nika and the American lady on the weekend, learning of Sopea's story as the mozzies buzzed around us and the night settled in.
Sopea is two months pregnant with her first babe. She followed the customary Khmer rush of conceiving almost immediately after her marriage several months ago, reportedly 'by accident'. At first, I thought she was just looking tired and weary from the constant morning sickness, but after having spent a day and a half around her, I had started to wonder whether she wasn't in some sort of depression, as she constantly wrote in a little notebook she carried with her everywhere she went. Little did I know that I was treading on the outskirts of a personal trauma so big, it seems surreal, even now.
After her marriage, Sopea's life had taken a slight turn, her husband's love and affection turning to bitterness and inattention. When she fell pregnant, she thought it would take away their troubles, create more harmony and settle her moody husband's outbursts. He had become repeatedly angry with her for not bringing in enough money since she fell pregnant, as well as for being sick and not being herself. He didn't like this new side to her, and wanted things reverted.
Sopea was scared terribly of bringing a child into this world when she knew in her heart that her new young family could not feed it, clothe it, give it a good chance in life, something she never had. Her husband was earning a meagre salary of USD60, and Sopea herself was able to add only around USD20 per month. This left them with around USD6 each per week, given that she had three mouths to feed, rent to pay, fuel, education; Sopea knew this was not enough and it was causing her sufficient anguish that she had huge bags under her eyes, smiling only forcedly and very briefly in conversation.
When I found Sopea and Nika sitting in the breeze under the dim light of the bedroom we were all sharing, I sat down with them and the American lady, and it was explained to me that Sopea was thinking about terminating her pregnancy, as she knew she wasn't ready to give birth. But she was fighting demons, petrified that her husband would divorce her as he had threatened, society would shun her, and most importantly, that her Gods would never forgive her for taking the life of her unborn child. She had little money, not enough for the abortion, nor for living expenses should her husband decide to leave her. And I will not even dwell into the health risks involved with terminating a pregnancy on a crusty table with dirty utensils in a country as poor as Cambodia.
Couldn't her family support her?, I asked. No, neither her family nor the family of her husband cared about her, nor did they want anything to do with her. Huh, I thought. Why not? Had she done something to disrespect them, to make them lose face in their social circles? Had she married against their will, received too small a dowry, what was it?
Her husband's family, for one, simply didn't care about their son and his new wife in the city. As far as they were concerned, the newly-weds had a far better and more prosperous life than anyone in the provinces. They expected money to be sent home occasionally, but wouldn't lend the pregnant woman any support in return. Shortly after their wedding, Sopea had travelled all the way down to meet her husband and his family in their homeland, four hours from Phnom Penh, only to have to turn around and make her way back, alone, as no one had been there to greet or receive her. They simply didn't want to. His family were most likely jealous of the opportunities presented to Sopea in the city, incensed that she had the nerve to look sad in her flourishing lifestyle.
It was when I heard the reasons Sopea's family wouldn't support her that I was reduced to dumb silence. Even now, I am struck by it, feeling unable to do justice to such a story. Sopea comes from a poor, dysfunctional, provincial family. Her mother had left her father and family behind for a new husband, taking only the youngest children with her. I guess the years of war under the Khmer Rouge, which ended less than 30 years ago, as well as the subsequent hardships, left behind some cold, irrational traits in Sopea's mother and the new husband, as he began using the 4yo Rathna to satisfy his sexual needs, repeatedly performing oral sex on the child whilst her mother watched on in silence, turning a blind eye. Apparently, Rathna didn't understand anyway, and it was no big deal. It was when he finally raped her, at age four, that Sopea and her siblings decided that enough was enough. They charged him with rape, and finally got the matter to some sort of court, though the mother withdrew all evidence and failed to testify on the day of the hearing, resulting in the husband serving a mere two year term in jail.
He has now returned to live with Sopea's mother and Rathna, the beautiful, innocent, intellegent young girl who he raped so recently. She plays alone in the dirt outside their shack, no clean clothes, no schooling, no love, no care. Supposedly, justice was done.
As I look at Sopea sitting alone on a park bench along the river when we visit town the next day, I have a welling feeling inside me that wants to wrap her up and tell her everything will be ok. There is hope for her. She will break out of this cycle that is sucking her down, inch by inch. But Sopea is a grown woman, cynical and sad, depressed adn weak; she has lost faith in the world, in the human spirit. Her tear-swollen eyes glance emptily out over the water, and I feel so goddamn helpless. Nika assures me that sopea is feeling much better, that she has convinced her to take control of the situation and to tell her husband that she will abort. She will not subject another child to the life on the streets, without love, without opportunity, without the faith she lost a long time ago. The American lady has promised to cover the costs of the abortion and Sopea can live with her for a few weeks if her husband kickes her out, until she can find work.
But as I look into her brown eyes, I can't help but wonder whether this young woman will ever truly find happiness after all of her life experiences. She has been traumatised by the actions of her family, the people who are supposed to stick by you in this life, never give up on you. She has little support outside of the American lady, no friends in the city, no councelling or mentoring. She doesn't even understand her pregnancy, believing that the morning sickness is a sign from her Gods that she is a bad person.
As I think this story over and over, my heart heats uo and I feel like crying, but can't bring myself to do so. Here I am, whinging about the perils of my day, when really, I have all the opportunity and freedom to change anything in my life. Happiness and sadness, for me, are choices I make not circumstances. I have the money, the education, the independance and the support to control my life and live it out exactly the way I wish. And tonight, as I sit here struggling to write this story, I vow to myself that I will try to put things into perspective the next time I feel cheated, or angry for shrinking my favourite shirt in the washing.
A friend of mine told me the other day, when I was down on myself and questioning what I was doing here, that I was here for a reason, and if I did not yet know what it was, it would come to me soon; today, I know this reason. I have been blessed with the ability to write so that I can make the lives of these humbling human beings a part of your lives, and I hope that I have touched even just a few of you with Sopea's story. If you have been touched, please pass this story onto as many people as you know; forward it to your entire contacts list. And share with me how you feel; angry, sad, indifferent. Because if we all shared a little more of our lives with each other, I wouldn't have stories such as Sopea's to tell.
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