Cambodia’s First Protest Band Takes Aim at the Fashion Industry

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Last month, we had the chance to sit down with The Messenger Band in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as they prepared for their ten year anniversary. The group of six is Cambodia’s first protest band. Made up of former garment workers, their collection of over 40 songs range in topic from land ownership issues affecting residents in rural provinces to policies directly aimed at garment workers. Their music is foremost a tool for advocacy.

In 1994 the number of garment factories in Phnom Penh expanded rapidly. Cambodia experienced its first wave of industrial manufacturing since the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. Because of that, Cambodia’s post-communist population was strained by the pressures of development, adversely affecting women whose collective lack of education has left them uninformed and vulnerable to aggressive global industry.

Inequality in access to education has led to devastating gender oppression in contemporary Cambodia. Because women receive post secondary education at a much lower rate than men—currently 37% of the female population obtain university degrees—women take on the lowest paid jobs in society as garment or sex workers, or remain isolated from economic opportunity in rural farming communities.

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Additionally, the regulatory environment does not provide the means to monitor and enforce labor policy. A resulting lack of accountability permits a highly competitive industry to exploit the country’s poorest citizens. Human Rights Watch is just one of many organizations that has documented a lack of regulation enforcement in working conditions adversely effecting women.”

In reaction to the absence of knowledge and transparency, The Messenger Band was formed by Womyn’s Agenda for Change  in 2005. They encouraged women to break their silence and to write their own stories. The band’s original 8 members were selected by competition. In 2009, WAC phased out and The Messenger Band became an independent organization within the United Sisterhood Alliance.

MB’s primary goal is to advocate for equal rights without discrimination in the developing process. To achieve this, the band plays to two audiences. They appeal to the government while educating Cambodia’s poorest populations. MB believes singing is a softer way of demanding rights and encouraging discussion around controversial topics. Using familiar melodies from well known Cambodian songs to spread information, the band can easily reach their Khmer audiences.

“Through song workers become brave and more open to getting involved. Our songs inspire workers to be active participants in society. For example, they use our songs during protests,” said MB member Nam Sophors.

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At the historic December 2013 garment worker protests in Phnom Penh thousands of workers took to the streets demanding decent wages that would allow them to exist beyond surviving day to day. Messenger Band distributed pamphlets of their songs to the crowds and the workers sang together. Leading member Vun Em stated, “When we are united we can raise our voice.”

MB is selective about which protests they get involved with. Collectively, the six women are not leaders but rather a support mechanism for the hundreds of thousands of women working in Cambodia’s garment industry. They will assist in demonstrations when workers have a clear stance and understand the full risk of their actions.

For now, MB is making waves of change performing and lending helping hands but the group says their role or method of advocacy is likely to change in the future as the needs of Cambodian workers evolve.

Visit Primary Voice to hear songs by The Messenger Band.

Images: The Messenger Band