From 1975-1979, the communist regime—known as the Khmer Rouge—devastated Cambodia, killing nearly 25% of the population. Men, women, and children were marched at gun point to isolated labor camps known as the “killing fields,” while tens of thousands of others were executed in jails and prisons. Completely destabilized as a culture, Cambodia became easy prey to sexual predators and their lucrative industries, which now enslave thousands within Cambodia’s borders.
Thankfully, local leaders, NGOS, and Christian organizations have produced many positive changes. Even so, most address the symptoms, such as sex slavery, while the underlying problem—the devaluation of females—remains a serious and fundamental issue. The inferiority of women, which is often considered self-evident in the Cambodian culture and also in the church, fuels male dominance and erodes the confidence of females gifted for leadership.
Recognizing this challenge, funders and Cambodian NGOs partnered with CBE to develop biblical resources that provide an alternative assessment of females culminating in a conference, Women’s Leadership Development, held in the capital city of Phnom Penh, last month. Here I had the privilege of delivering two sessions, “Developing a Gender lens in Reading Scripture” and “Assessing the Impact of Patriarchy and Biblical Justice.”
Lectures such as mine were aimed at building confidence and practical skills for women in ministry. Sessions also explored ways of balancing ministry and family demands, which remain key issues facing female leaders in Cambodia. For two days, the conference began with worship in Khmer and devotions that celebrated the faith and courage of biblical women. Lectures were supplemented with small group discussions that proved essential in processing lectures and in creating space to share personal challenges, problem solve, build friendships, and to deepen support networks. Thanks to the generosity of CBE members and donors, each attendee received a Khmer translation of Still Side by Side—a concise explanation of Scripture’s support for female leadership
After the conference, I joined ministry leaders for their weekly outreach to prostitutes working at the local beer gardens. Small teams regularly visit the beer gardens, developing friendships with the prostitutes. As we walked into the beer garden, these women rushed over to hug us, making clear the power of this ministry. Inviting these friends to join us for dinner, we listened to their painful stories of struggling to provide for their children. We also heard joyful accounts of their children’s adventures and achievements and we giggled as we shared photographs of family and friends. The pronounced sadness that crossed their faces as the band started again, calling the women to their places on stage, highlighted for me how precious and life-giving these friendships had become.
Our final hours were spent considering additional ways to build confidence, capacity and practical skills for women leading ministries such as this. One venture seemed obvious: CBE and our Cambodian partners agreed to create six conference scholarships to bring Cambodian leaders to CBE’s Pittsburgh conference on July 26-28.
I hope you will join us in Pittsburgh this summer. If you plan to attend, please graciously welcome our Cambodian colleagues with the same gentle, trusting kindness I experienced in Phnom Penh last month. Despite soaring temperatures, our Cambodian hosts were among the kindest most gentle people I have worked beside. Pray for the more than fifty male and female leaders who attended the conference, as they boldly follow God’s call in dangerous and challenging ministries. Ask God to enlarge their resources and numbers, and thank God for their strategic leadership in our world.