Samith Hou's work with migrants improves health among her fellow Cambodians.
People in Cambodia greet each other with “Som mean sokhapheap la-or neung a yuk veng”—wishes for good health and long life. But, wonders Samith Hou, how can you live a long life if you don’t have a chance at good health?
Samith has spent most of her life making sure that people, especially women, in Cambodia can be healthy and prosper. Currently a program officer in PATH’s Phnom Penh office, Samith has worked with health issues and women’s affairs for nearly 30 years, watching terms like “gender” ease into the country’s vocabulary, observing Cambodia grow and develop in the wake of the Pol Pot regime, and witnessing firsthand the nation’s suffering under the Khmer Rouge.
Samith was a teenager just finishing high school in 1975 when Pol Pot’s army took control of Cambodia. She and her family were sent with hundreds of thousands of other Cambodians to work in the rice fields, living on only rice porridge, Samith recalls. Her father died during that time.
In 1979 after Pol Pot was ousted, Samith returned home with her mother and six siblings. “We did not have anything,” Samith says, so she couldn’t continue her education. Instead, she went to work as a volunteer staff member at a health center in Kandal province, north of Phnom Penh. After three months she was recruited to be the sub-chief of Prek Pnov health center “with no knowledge of health issues,” Samith laughs.
Samith hoped to train as a midwife, but instead in 1981 she was encouraged to join the Prek Pnov Commune People’s Committee, elected with eight other candidates, all men, to be responsible for social affairs and culture. Three years later she joined the Women’s Association of Cambodia—a governmental agency that later became the Ministry of Women’s Affairs when Cambodia transitioned to a democracy. Samith worked in provinces around the country under UNICEF-supported projects to help women improve nutrition for themselves and their families, encourage them to send their children to school, and integrate them into a community framework traditionally dominated by men.
“At that time we started to hear the word ‘gender,’” Samith says. “We tried to do everything to encourage women to speak up, to raise their voice, and let the society know their needs, so that we could support them.”
As Samith advocated for women to become equal partners in their communities, she faced her own challenges—traveling safely from Phnom Penh to the less-secure outlying provinces for her job. “Before leaving home, I prayed,” Samith says. “And when I arrived in the province, I was happy because I was still alive.”
In late 2000, Samith left the government to join PATH, continuing her work as an advocate for improved health among her fellow Cambodians. She manages the activities of PATH’s Promdan project, working with migrants who move between Cambodia and Thailand. Promdan works to reduce the migrants’ risk of HIV/AIDS, enhance their quality of life, and strengthen their communities and access to health services.
From her early experience as a health center volunteer to her role today in helping thousands of people improve their well-being, Samith continues to find ways for people to achieve good health and long life. Health, she says, is “the most important need for people in the whole world, not only in Cambodia, because we can see that if we are healthy, we can work, we can earn money. And we can say in general that we have happiness in the family, including in ourselves.”