“You should always have a dream and you should always try to achieve your dreams,” Rossokna told me. She’s a 39-year-old woman from a small village just north of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
We were sat together in a cafe in the small town of Kampot, situated along Cambodia’s southern coast.
“Life is not easy. Sometimes we’re not always successful the first time that we try something but you have to keep trying,” she said. “Always have a dream and always try to achieve your dream.”
Rossokna’s words resonated with me. After having spent more than 16 years travelling throughout various parts of the world, I have noticed how often women are prevented from achieving their dreams.
This might be because they weren’t allowed to have an education or because they were required to stay and work in the house all day. It might be because they have been told that “girls don’t do that” or because of the extremely high prevalence of sexual harassment in their society that makes them feel unwilling to do anything in public.
For women and girls who have the additional barrier of poverty in front of them, achieving their dreams is even more challenging.
So I when I met Rossokna, I wanted to tell a little bit of her story because she is an example of how you can do anything, if you just try.
Rossokna grew up in poverty. At just 15-years-old, her parents separated and left her alone to take care of her brother and sisters after her parents separated. This wasn’t easy.
They went to live with their aunty in Phnom Penh. But that too was really difficult.
“Living with my aunty wasn’t good,” she told me. “I would have to stay in the house all day and do everything for them. I didn’t go to school and at night, I had nothing to sleep on, my cousins had everything, a mattress and a pillow, but not me.”
“There was another lady living in the house who sold apples in the market. She would collect all the little stickers on the apples to make a pillow for me to sleep on.”
She decided to go back to her village, but without the support of her parents, she had to find a way of making money. She started to make snacks from the fruit in her garden and selling them in the market.
“There were some days when I didn’t have food. I was always thinking about how I could make my life better,” she said.
Rossokna then decided to go and work in one of the many factories around Phnom Penh, which were notorious for their low wages and harsh conditions.
Despite this, getting a job in one of the factories was not easy. She described arriving at the gates of one of the factories and having to push through the swarms of women at the gate, all trying to seek work.
She was given a job, however, and at just $17 a month, she was happy. After all, she was working.
As she gained more experience, she moved to different factories where she could earn more money. She began to earn $40 a month, then $80 and then $100. She lived in a small room with five other people and worked all of the time.
But her real dream was to have her own salon.
So with a little bit of money behind her, she decided to try. She found a salon who for $10 a day, would teach her what to do.
She would then work in the factory during the day and go to the salon in her lunch breaks, never taking a day off.
Always wanting to get better, Rossokna decided that wanted to study at a better school and with the help of her sister, that’s what she did.
But then her mother called her back to the village for an arranged marriage.
Rossokna’s marriage, however, was not a happy one. Her husband was controlling over money and he would also force her to sleep with him.
Even when she became pregnant with their child and after she gave birth and was in pain, he would still force her, declaring that it was his right.
Not being able to stand it anymore, she ran away to a woman’s shelter in Phnom Penh with her son. She returned to work in one of the factories and to live with her aunty who took care of her son while she was working.
But when she discovered that they were beating her son while she was at work, she couldn’t stay anymore.
At this point, tears began to fall down her face; her pain evident.
So she decided to go back to her village and see her husband and her mother again. However, things did not improve with her husband. So determined to make her life better, she got a divorce. A process that in a country like Cambodia, wasn’t easy.
She then went on to fulfil her dreams and opened up her own hair and nail salon. Just on the outside of Kampot, in her salon called Racksmey Salon, she has employed a number of other young women.
When I heard Rossokna’s story, I thought that even when you have most tremendous difficulties in your life, with hard work and determination you can achieve what it is that you want to do with your life.
Rossokna’s story shows us that with strength and courage, no barrier is too high.
“I think that it’s possible to do all of the things in life that you want to do," she said to me at the end of our talk. "If you don’t have somebody to help you, then you should help yourself.”
Rossokna's final message to me is powerful:
“I never give up.”
Johanna Higgs is an anthropologist and founder of Project MonMa, which advocates for women’s rights around the world.
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