Senhoa Jewelry: Fighting Cambodia’s Modern Day Slavery With Style

7 mins

Senhoa Jewelry, which has been designed by supermodels and coveted by haute couture elite, is empowering survivors of human trafficking in Cambodia with the skills to make stunning pieces that the fashion world adores, says Carolyn Beasley

It’s dawn at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and I watch in awe as the splendour of the world’s largest religious monument is revealed. As the light rises over the 12th century temple, expensive cameras click, and smartly-dressed international tourists pile back into luxury tour buses. But despite the two million tourists that arrive here yearly, Cambodia remains one of Asia’s poorest countries.

In a dusty street behind my leafy hotel in Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor temples, raggedly-dressed kids are poking through piled-up litter, looking for anything useful to sell. The kids’ puppy is scooped up by a passing food vendor, but saved again by a boy’s quick hands. Out of town on the river, homes are built with salvaged anything, and plumbing appears non-existent. Children play with broken toys, while sparsely feathered chickens scratch the dirt. The truth of the poverty here is undeniable.

As in many countries where poverty is rife, modern day slavery prospers. In Cambodia, human trafficking is big business, with people coerced or forced into migrating across borders to Thailand, Vietnam or Laos and sometimes continuing to other final destinations. Most of the women and children that are trafficked are destined for forced labour, domestic work or the flesh trade.

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Young children in Cambodia are often forced to work. This girl is making souvenir bracelets at tourist attraction Angkor Wat. Image: Shutterstock

The Global Index of Slavery in 2016 estimated 256,000 Cambodians are living in modern day slavery. In victims of sex trafficking to Thailand, only 25 percent were trafficked by a stranger, with two-thirds of the victims trafficked by a family member, boyfriend or community member for money. According to World Vision, in 38 percent of women and girls working in sexually exploitative conditions in Cambodia, their virginity had been bought. Children as young as three years old are being sold into begging rings in Thailand.

Can fashion help?

The local souvenirs in the shop at the Shinta Mani Shack Hotel are all made by social enterprises and charities. But it’s the Senhoa Jewelry collection that captures my attention, sparkling with crystals by Swarovski Elements. The elegance is impressive, and I leave with a stylish pair of earrings, glittering with crystals of a deep blue.

Senhoa Jewelry, a US registered charity, has been working since 2010 to end modern day slavery in Cambodia by empowering young women who are survivors or at risk of trafficking. Senhoa teaches these women, aged 18 to 29, the skills to make designer, high quality ethical jewellery while paying them a fair wage – 100 percent of proceeds from sales go to supporting their artisans.

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This Chantha bracelet retails at $145. Image: Nigel Barker

The name is a combination of two Vietnamese words, ‘Sen’ (lotus) and ‘Hoa’ (flower). A lotus flower grows in muddy water and rises above the surface to bloom with breath-taking beauty, untouched by its impure surroundings. Using this imagery, ‘Senhoa’ was conceptualised to represent women and children vulnerable to sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking

Tracy Brookshaw from the UK is the General Manager of Senhoa, and supports 15 women in Cambodia. Tracy explains that children, particularly girls, from impoverished families in Cambodia often need to drop out of school to earn money to support themselves and their families. This not only puts children at risk from dangerous working situations, human trafficking and sexual exploitation, but can also limit future options due to a lack of education and skills.

‘Our women come to Senhoa from various backgrounds and situations. All join our team with very little skillset and minimal education and would be therefore at risk of exploitation, while several individuals have survived more traumatic situations,’ Tracy says.

Senhoa stamped it’s mark on the fashion world after several high profile collaborations. Their US-based founder Lisa Nguyen met Canadian model Coco Rocha when she joined a friend at the model’s wedding in France and presented the bride with a bracelet made by the Senhoa artisans. Coco, then 23, was so taken with the work that she designed her own collection in 2011, ‘Coco Rocha for Senhoa’ comprising of seven unique pieces. Coco enlisted fellow models Chanel Iman, Caroline Trentini, and Behati Prinsloo to promote the designs whose proceeds all went back to the cause.

‘Over the course of the next year [I] wore Senhoa jewellery pieces at various red carpet events,’ Coco told the Daily Mail at the time.‘As I learned more about the issue of human trafficking and heard the particular stories of these girls that Senhoa assists I knew I wanted to do something more. So we decided that a jewellery collaboration was a great way to lend my voice to the cause.

‘I’m very picky about the jewellery I like to wear so this collection definitely reflects my personal aesthetic,’ she continued. ‘I wanted to create a very fashion forward collection, but still incorporate the wonderful beading work the Senhoa women are known for.’

It didn’t stop there. Sisters and former US models Kimberley Hise and Cristen Barker, who have appeared in magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and walked catwalks for Gucci, Valentino and Yohji Yamamoto, also became involved. Now yoga-influencers, better known as the Chin Twins, the pair launched the Clarity Collection for Senhoa this September. The collection includes delicate chains with shimmering crystals, body jewellery, unique earrings and a stunning drop necklace. In both the Coco Rocha and the Chin Twins campaigns, acclaimed fashion photographer Nigel Barker, the husband of Cristen Barker, captured the stunning imagery.

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Models Behati Prinsloo and Coco Rocha shoot for one of Coco’s Senhoa designs. Image: Niger Barker

The Cambodian artisans also design their own range of jewellery called Our Own Hands, which is run as a cooperative, with sales supporting the purchase of new materials and a social fund for field trips.

Tracy loves seeing confidence and skills develop in the young artisans. Senhoa actively promotes internally whenever possible, with several team members progressing into management roles.  ‘One of our artisans has progressed to become our Design Coordinator. She supports product development, sampling for our private label customers and creates our couture pieces,’ she says.

Through Senhoa, women are developing a sense of self-worth. Kanitha* is 24 years old and has been working at Senhoa for six years. ‘Before coming to work at Senhoa, I am a hopeless person and never expect to use my skill to benefit others,’ she says. ‘After working here, Senhoa help to direct my talent, build up my soft skill (confidence and hard work) and hard skill (designing new style). I want to be a designer and be able to open my own shop.’

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This Eleuthera piece was designed by the Chin twins for Senhoa. Image: Niger Barker

Senhoa’s lines are stocked in a growing number of locations. One stockist is the boutique at Shinta Mani Shack, run by Senhoa’s Cambodian partner, the Shinta Mani Foundation. Other Cambodian stockists include the Heritage Suites Hotel, Amansara Hotel, La Boutique – Free Your Art and T-Galleria Duty Free Shopping. The products are available online in the US and UK and at events. Senhoa also works with private labels and negotiations are underway with a large household brand.

Senhoa empowers the next generation through education, employment skills and self-esteem, helping to break the cycle of poverty and slavery. In fact, jewellery artisan Kanitha now has a future to look forward to. She says: ‘Senhoa helps to change my future to become a valuable person and helps my family to get away from any judgment from society. I hardly believe to become who I am right now.’

* Real name has been changed for privacy.

For more info go to www.senhoa.org

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