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Empowering women to talk about health benefits both workers and businesses

Sophen, 26, has worked in a garment factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh since 2006. For the past five years, CARE has been offering life skills training for workers at the factory through lunchtime sessions; Sophen has been one of the peer educators helping to share information and advise those around her.

As a peer educator, Sophen not only conducts lunchtime health awareness sessions but also acts as a key person for individuals to seek advice on health issues. Sophen says that many workers have found the information about family planning one of the most useful topics they have learned, as before they had very little knowledge of this. Most women she has spoken to want to leave a reasonable space between having each child; they don’t want their work interrupted to the point that they are unable to earn money to save for their children’s future. Sophen ensures people know that condoms and the pill are available at the factory infirmary and refers 2-3 people each month to external clinics for longer term contraception methods.

For women with limited income, an unplanned pregnancy can appear disastrous and lead women to take drastic measures. Sophen says that before CARE provided information on family planning at the factory, she knew of five or six people who decided to have abortions. Research has shown that as many as 80% of women believe that abortion is illegal in Cambodia even though it is not, meaning many may put their health at risk by resorting to unsafe abortions in unofficial clinics. Sophen says that she now encounters less people becoming pregnant unexpectedly as people’s understanding of how to correctly use contraceptives has improved.

One of the biggest changes she has noticed is in workers’ attitudes to talking about their health. Sophen’s friends, both married and non-married, will now talk about family planning freely. Many women who were affected by reproductive infections were previously too shy or embarrassed to talk about these, often because of lack of understanding—now they will discuss their problems more openly and advisors such as Sophen are able to inform them of where to seek treatment.

Improving the health of women in factories has not only has a positive impact on their well-being, but on their work as well. Sophen is responsible for counting the tickets workers receive for each garment they sew to track how much work they will be paid for. Previously, she noticed that women would work slowly if they were preoccupied with worries about pregnancy or unable to concentrate due to discomfort as a result of an infection. Diarrhea from eating unhygienic food also caused significant disruption to people’s work. For a number of people Sophen has advised improving their health has considerably increased their production, with some increasing their daily output by an additional 40%. This has a major impact on both their personal income and on the overall productivity of the factory.

With a young daughter of her own, Sophen is very happy she has been able to choose when to have her children. She is keen to continue to support workers to voice their health concerns so women can access healthcare which, however small it may seem, has such an important impact on their lives.

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