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Overcoming the Poverty of Shame


WRITTEN BY:  YOT CHANTA & ERYN AUSTIN-BERGEN
Vor, his wife Sokphat, and their son Varin are heading out to town on the motorbike!


“Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.”
– Brene Brown

Hin Vor never finished elementary school. He grew up in poverty, married young, and became a mediocre farmer. By age 35 he had four children and zero prospects. To say he felt shame is an understatement.

I tried my best, but our harvest was not good. We raised animals and did labour work for other people just to earn more income to support my family. Sometimes when we farmed, we lost even our capital. I was also very shy and would even not talk to our other people because I would think that they were better than me.”

Hin Vor believed he would never amount to anything. He believed he was too uneducated, too incompetent as a farmer and as a provider for his family. He believed he wasn’t worthy. This mindset is possibly the most damaging form of poverty. It’s paralyzing. As Brene Brown points out, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” (1)

Thankfully, Vor’s neighbours did believe in him and his capacity for change. In 2014, the FH farmers’ group he belonged to nominated him to be their leader. He was shocked.

“Our group selected me to be the new [leader] and I attended [leadership] training…Then, I participated in agriculture training. This involved animal raising and crop planting.”

Vor learned quickly. He and his wife, Sokphat, began applying new techniques on their farm, like making and integrating organic fertilizer, composting, and applying non-chemical pesticides. Their papaya groves became exceptionally productive. They started raising cows and learned how to grow cattle feed in their own backyard and incorporate the cow manure into their farming.

The persistent home visits of encouraging FH staff members and the trust of his neighbours began to change Vor’s mindset. The beliefs he held about himself produced by the poverty of shame – feeling trapped, isolated, powerless – slowly transformed into empathy, connection, power, and freedom. Vor’s success reinforced the positive messages he received from FH and his peers. He began to see himself differently. He started realizing his own potential as a man who has something valuable to share, a leader who can help others. 

“FH helped build my confidence. As a [leader], I am responsible to share these new techniques to my [farming] group. I was also invited to share to the youths about my experience. I am more than willing to share to them what I know. I used the story of my [past] failures for others to learn [a lesson] – which is not giving up. Now, we are growing papaya and my success here I share to my neighbours so that they, too, can be successful. I shared with them my knowledge and my skills.”

The family poses in front of their thriving papaya grove.


Vor is now a community leader who is influencing the next generation. The poverty of shame and self-worth he experienced has been replaced by self-confidence, hope, and a willingness to trust others. He’s not ashamed of his past failures because he has come to view them as learning opportunities, as a necessary part of the process of change. This mindset transformation is critical to sustain the material transformation that enables him to feed his family, pay school fees, clothe his children, and better his community.

“It [FH training] was like a door that opened to a lot of opportunities. It changed our mind and we realized that we have so much in our hands. …Before, we felt hopeless because of failures and problems that we faced. Even though we worked so hard before but still we did not get something in return. Now, we can provide enough support for the needs of our children which we cannot do before.”

Vor and his wife now clear an average monthly income of $500 CAD, which might not seem like a lot, but to a rural farmer in Cambodia it’s beyond sufficient to care for four children and live a healthy lifestyle. They farm two hectares of rice and three hectares of papaya orchards. The family also reduced their expenses by eating vegetables and fruit from the farm instead of buying them in the market. They raise chickens and ducks and have over 30 head of cattle. Their home is built of sturdy wood with rain-proof tile roofing, and they have their own home latrine (not a given in their village). All four children attend school.

But Vor didn’t accomplish these changes on his own.

His wife, Sokphat, was an equal partner in their transformation. Her peers also quickly recognized her potential and elected her as the leader of their women’s health group. “As a health [leader], I have to serve as a role model. Therefore, we built our toilet and used it properly. I make sure that it is clean all the time for our children to be healthy. Then, as soon as we did that, I can encourage others to do the same.”

Leading by example made Sokphat reflect on her role as a parent. She realized their struggle for survival had pushed important things to the periphery.

Sokphat explains, “I noticed before that my children always have an issue with their health. Then, I realized later on that maybe [it was] because I did not care about cleaning. Our priority before was only how the family can survive every day. We did not value the education of our children. Instead, I would bring them to the farm and ask them to help us.

“[FH] training increased my knowledge and experience. [Now] we care so much about the education of our children. We always encourage them to study hard and not to be absent in school. We want them to reach their dreams [unlike] us who had no opportunity before.”

Vor points out a critical piece of FH training that helped Svey Leu as much, if not more, than the practical workshops on health, savings, and agriculture: “They trained our leaders on how to bring us together to work as a community. We build our relationships as a community now because we can work together to address issues in our communities.” In short, individuals like Vor and Sokphat no longer struggle alone.

Brene Brown asserts that “Shame is the gremlin who says, ‘You’re not good enough. …I know you don’t think you’re pretty enough or smart enough or talented enough or powerful enough’.” The solution to overcoming such deep, constricting beliefs, however, is not positive self-talk but rather connection. “Empathy,” she insists, “is the antidote to shame.”

By walking with Vor’s community and bringing them together to hear each other’s stories, to empathize, and to work together, FH staff helped them escape the poverty of shame. They now realize they do have what it takes.

Vor sums up their story simply and powerfully: “We realized that we do not need a big amount of money to develop ourselves. [FH training] made us [the community] realized that we can actually do it on our own.”

(1) https://positivepsychology.com/shame-resilience-theory/   

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Food for the Hungry: Overcoming the Poverty of Shame
Overcoming the Poverty of Shame
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Food for the Hungry
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