It is pretty common for university students to debate the challenging issues Cambodia is facing today. However, it was surprising to learn about a group of garment workers out there struggling to echo the grassroots’ voices, despite the fact that they did not have an opportunity to obtain a proper education.
In 2005, the Messenger Band was established and joined by some garment workers who cared about the problems the poor were facing. Today the band has six members who are all women working for a textile factory in Phnom Penh. This group of women is working with at the grassroots level of society, which includes garment workers, sex workers and farmers.
In addition to working at a factory, Van Thuon, Leng Leakena, Nim Samphois, Sa Eam, Sothary and Keo Chealika spend a lot of their time going to five different provinces – Kandal, Takeo, Kampong Cham, Prey Veng and Svayrieng – to collect information about farmers’ concerns. They listen to people’s problems, from domestic violence and debt to migration and the use of chemicals on their crops, and finally turn these issues into song lyrics.
In the city, the group talks with garment workers about their difficulties, such as living conditions, and also tells those workers what rights they have to protect themselves from being exploited by the company. The band also raises awareness among sex workers on issues like HIV/AIDS, STDs and how to manage to be mentally happy in spite of the prejudice society has toward them.
What inspires them is the fact that they were born into families who went through similar hardships such as a lack of education, poverty and poor health care. Born into a farming family, Leng Leakena is the second of four children. She moved to Phnom Penh to work as a garment worker in 2003 after graduating from high school and later joined the band in 2007 because her family could not afford to send her to university.
What makes the band even more admirable is the fact that they use their talents without any formal training in how to sing or perform.
Not only do they work as volunteers, but the band also contributes free CDs they make to people they meet. The group often has free admission to their concerts in the five targeted provinces as well as in Phnom Penh in order to share the information they collect and offer solutions via their music.
On December 25, the group plans to stage a free concert in Kandal’s Kandal Stueng district.