In 2006 Lisa Nguyen, Senhoa’s Founder, visited Cambodia. What she found was a country where the exploitation and human trafficking of women and girls was prevalent. Lisa visited several charities providing high level support and rehabilitiation programs to victims and soon identified that there was a gap in support for young women who had received crisis support but needed hand-holding in maintaining their independence while they reintegrated into society. This is where the concept of Senhoa started. In 2008, Lisa and a small team set up a pilot program with 5 young women and looked to provide help not only in terms of income generation, but also a holistic package of support including education, life skills and counseling.
So where does the jewelry come in?
Originally jewelry making was chosen due to it being something that can be taught fairly quickly, enabling the girls to make something beautiful with their hands which gives a sense of personal satisfaction and doesn’t require any level of literacy. None of the team had any previous experience in jewelry making, however we were lucky enough to get an amazing creative director on board and also collaborated with some star designers such as Canadian super model Coco Rocha and New York stylist Julie Ragolia. They have helped us so much with creating stunning collections and grow the small pilot into a jewelry brand that is starting to be recognized internationally.
Through fair wages and safe employment we now provide vulnerable women in Cambodia the skills to make luxury jewelry with some of our most intricate pieces taking several weeks for one artisan to make. Our passion is to make high-quality statement pieces which offer our customer something amazing to own while at the same time has the added benefit of offering vulnerable women a chance to take control of their lives through economic and emotional empowerment.
At the beginning of 2015 we changed the structure of the program from a charity to a social business. Not only does that enable us to run the business more efficiently and effectively (100% of the profit from jewelry sales goes to funding other social programs within local communities in Cambodia) but it has resulted in a subtle but extremely important shift in the relationship we have with our artisans, from beneficiaries of a holistic program of support, skills training and income generation to formal employees. This is proving to be transformative – no longer are they ‘service users’ but employees with a vested interest in the business. Whilst maintaining the same nurturing environment with holistic support and understanding, our artisans are stepping up to the challenge of higher expectations in terms of contractual obligations with some moving into different roles within the organization.
Employ. Empower. Emancipate. This is our slogan at Senhoa and at the very heart of what we do. So when we talk about economic empowerment, what exactly do we mean?
It means being able to acquire and have decision-making power over money, for example being able to earn money and decide how you spend it; deciding if you want to save and when you want to draw on your savings; being able to borrow when you want to take out a loan and decide how you repay it. Basic things that most of us take for granted but which none of our artisans had previously had the luxury of enjoying.
Many girls and women don't have this kind of decision-making power. Why is that?
In countries such as Cambodia, girls often spend large amounts of time doing things such as caring for younger siblings, fetching water or preparing food – often at the cost of their schooling or health. They'll often be forced into marriage young and won't necessarily have the same education as their male counterparts. Girls are often sent off to work to pay off a family debt. A sad reality is that virginity sales is not uncommon in the communities that we work in. This typically leads to social isolation, having less access to education and much higher risks of health problems. This affects how much they're able to make choices about every aspect of their lives and whether they're dependent on male members of their family.
Changing aspirations of women and girls and those of their communities, building their confidence and giving them access to information and networks, is a critical part of Senhoa’s work. How do we go about changing those aspirations?
At Senhoa we take a holistic approach. 100% of the profit from the sale of our jewelry goes to fund prevention and early intervention programs working with the whole family - girls and women, boys and men.
Understanding what is expected of girls within the confines of their culture or community is essential. By running community programs alongside the jewelry social business we try and challenge those beliefs.
In 2018 we will:
Protect 159 at-risk children via our Lotus Kids’ Club. We teach basic literacy, math, English, computer skills, cooking and sewing.
Feed 134 families via our Nutrition Program. Monthly food packages and our micro-loans and family development programs allow parents to choose preschool, rather than child labor, for their kids.
Provide medical and dental care, hygienic supplies, vaccinations and vitamins for all our students.
Employ 15 survivor artisans, offering them a fair wage and access to the global marketplace.
We want to give young women opportunities they haven't had before. What effect will that have on girls and their wider communities?
Senhoa is here to provide our artisans with the tools they need to move forward from their pasts and live independently and take care of themselves and their families. Often what's happening is now they are the first members of the family to be able to save and support the family and, actually, the whole family is learning from what the girls learn, so they're more likely to develop savings habits and other positive financial behaviors. For the first time, they are able to think and plan for the future, decide on a goal they wish to pursue and for the first time, to live out their dreams.
What are our latest achievements?
Our Board of Directors have recently approved a salary adjustment for all our artisans. We are now proud to say we are getting closer to paying a living wage to all our artisans and pay 37% above the Cambodian minimum wage. We also provide our artisans with life skills classes, healthcare insurance and access to education opportunties.
What does Senhoa Jewelry represent to our customers?
We believe that by wearing Senhoa jewelry our customers are able to advocate against human trafficking and exploitation of women and girls in their own way. Our lotus flower logo symbolises the journey our artisans make, growing in muddy waters and blossoming into a flower with breathtaking beauty. Each time someone purchases our jewelry they know they are contributing to the transformation of one of our artisans' lives.