Sengsavang means Shining Light. At KM 9 heading northeast away from Savanakhet there is an unassuming row of shops that shine brightly. Situated next to the SOS Orphanage and across from Savan Park shipping warehouse sits Sengsavang’s restaurant, tailor shop, salon, and outdoor market stall. What passes for a strip mall to the untrained eye is in fact the training ground for young women who have been victims of human trafficking and are now blazing new paths for themselves.
Sengsavang is managed by a small dedicated staff of 24-7 care takers, legal counsel, a social worker, program manager, director and volunteers and can house and educate up to 50 young women at a time. Since its opening in 2006, 500 women have completed programs in hospitality and cooking, sewing, and farming. A new cosmetology and hair program has begun and the young women learn how to keep house and cook for themselves and each other. Some residents are as young as 13. If they’ve been out of school 2 years or less, they are able to be tutored and jump back into the formal Laos education track. Those who have been out of school for more than 2 years can receive an informal grade 9 certificate from the teacher who comes to the center each day at 3 p.m. then go on to a non-formal high school for more education. Some girls aspire to attend military schools, study finance or go to the teacher’s training college.
On my visit I selected a beautifully woven fabric dyed with indigo and natural mango to be made into a wrap skit. The fabric was dyed and woven in a village about 70 KM from Savannakhet. A sweet, slight girl with chipped blue toe nail polish measured around my waist, thighs and from hip to shin. She rattled off the measurements in Lao to her fellow trainee. The director of Sengsavang, a composed French and English-speaking Lao woman commented that the sihn I was already wearing was too big and ill-fitting. I took it off and turned it over to be taken in and shortened by my new personal tailors. I asked the women if I could take their picture. The director translated, said they agreed and then thanked me for asking. With all I imagine they’ve been through in their time in the illicit sex trade, I figured the absolute least I could do is offer them the dignity of deciding whether a stranger could take their picture.
Behind the storefronts lies an organic farm. Four tanks of catfish sit on the edge of the property. Some of the children from the orphanage next door like to sneak over and go fishing. There’s a big meeting room for activities and art therapy sessions. Many of the young women have never taken a sex-ed course before coming to Sengsavang and many are unaware of their legal rights. Some are orphans. Others have family. One young woman is one of 13 children. Some faced abuse at home, others were born to very young, poor mothers who didn’t have the means or education to parent well.
Regardless of their family backgrounds, all of the young women have a chance to commune with nature as they recover. An organic mushroom farm on the property yields hundreds of kilos of oyster mushrooms that are sold out front at the farmer’s stand along side vegetables, eggs and live chickens. Susan, an Australian volunteer who works to secure grant money and ensure a stable business plan is in place said that, “the girls are quite fond of the chickens and don’t want to eat something they’ve been raising.”
Julia, one of the overnight care takers recently graduated from the Teachers Training College, where I’m placed as a volunteer. She couldn’t find a teaching job but finds working with the residents at Sengsavang rewarding. Wearing a long navy sweater and matching sihn in the heat, I met her in a room piled high with feminine hygiene kits. Another organization that distributes washable sanitary napkins, detergent and give reproductive health seminar to girls in rural provinces contracted the young women at Sengsavang to assemble the kits for them. Win-win.
Sengsavang buys residents bicycles and teaches them bike maintenance. Buddhist lent ends next week and the young women of Sengsavang will take a field trip together to see the boat races in the Mekong River. They’ll get spending money and some well-deserved time to blend into the celebratory crowds as confident young women.
If you'd like more information or to donate to this incredible organization visit sengsavang.org