How women migrant workers in Cambodia are using photography to share their stories

A woman in a red dress standing in rice fields
"I am happy with the results of my rice harvest. I work as a farmer and did not expect such good results." Photo: Women Migrant Workers photography project/UN Women Cambodia.
October 26, 2023

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - An estimated 1.3 million Cambodians live and work abroad. Women migrant workers make a huge contribution to the economies of both their host and home countries, as well as providing invaluable support to their families and communities. However, this contribution is not always visible. The very nature of migration can make it challenging to maintain regular connections and learn from what they have to say.

Men's hands covered in dust
“I wanted to show my husband’s hands. This is what hard-working hands look like.” Photo: Women Migrant Workers participatory photography project/UN Women Cambodia

That’s why for the past three years, Spotlight Initiative's Safe and Fair programme, implemented in partnership with UN Women and ILO, has developed a participatory photography project for women migrant workers to document their experiences. The intention is not simply to extract information from participants but also to provide them with skills in self-expression, reflection and critical thinking through extended engagement with the project. This project makes visible their lived experience and runs parallel to the Safe and Fair programme's work in strengthening services for responding to violence against women migrant workers.

Women board cramped trailers
“I wanted to show the crowded road is difficult... It’s cold on the bus, people use towels to protect from the rain and the sun.” Photo: Women Migrant Workers participatory photography project/UN Women Cambodia

Twenty-eight women who had either migrated or planned to migrate soon, joined a three-day workshop discussing photography, consent, ethics and storytelling to collectively develop a space to share experiences on their own terms. Using mobile phones and cloud storage, Women Migrant Workers could share photographs of their daily lived experiences with minimum disruption to their lives.

Participants came from a range of locations across Cambodia and between them, they created more than 7,000 photographs.

Srey Mom, who took part in the project, said that the process helped her to learn about storytelling but it also created a sense of self-awareness: “I have gained knowledge about photography and learnt how to use photographs to tell stories. I have had the opportunity to become more confident and gain a clearer understanding of myself.”

The project included weekly discussions with UN Women project staff and a photography consultant, during which participants would share their photographs and experiences. 

A woman sits on the floor and rests her head on her arm
“This is a self-portrait showing my sadness that my daughter lives with her father in Thailand. I feel very helpless... My husband just took her. This was December 2021 and I have not seen her since.” Photo: Women Migrant Workers participatory photography project/UN Women Cambodia

Many women migrant workers said the sessions built their confidence to speak up and express ideas, and that they felt more heard within the project, but also in their communities and families. In addition, participants recognised the importance of maintaining a safe space and network.

On 19th October, a selection of photographs were displayed as part of an exhibition in Phnom Penh - the culmination of 28 narratives coming together. It shows the hidden day-to-day experiences that could only be made visible through the women’s own participation and ownership. 

The core message from participants is to encourage others to migrate safely and legally. They also ask for greater transparency of information and access to information from local authorities, NGOs and UN Agencies; call for education regarding safe migration; and request easier, less costly access to documentation to enable migration through legal channels.

Safe and Fair: Realising Women Migrant Workers’ Rights and Opportunities in the ASEAN Region, is part of the Spotlight Initiative, a United Nations initiative in partnership with the European Union and other partners. Its aim is to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. The programme is implemented by the ILO, UN Women and UNODC.

By Charles Fox and Sophea Khun


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