Three months in Cambodia have gone by in an incredible whirlwind of food, culture and human rights. Through PACE International and AVI, I am volunteering as a legal intern with a local NGO called KHEN, or Khmer NGO for Education. This placement is a first, both for Macquarie students to be based in the beautiful French colonial town of Battambang, and for me to visit Cambodia.
KHEN works to promote child rights, access to education and protection for vulnerable children like girls and children with disabilities, so that they can develop to their full potential. To achieve this, staff run comprehensive education projects with children, schools and communities in the rural districts of Samlout and Rukkakiri. All together, over 2,200 children benefit directly from their initiatives.
My work buddy and constant rock here is Jessica Manthey, a fellow law student from Macquarie. Together, we were tasked with researching both international conventions and domestic laws regarding the rights of children, women and people with disabilities. From there, we have made plain English training materials to educate primary school children about their rights, in a fun and entertaining way. Finally, we made materials to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of their implementation.
Our work is always interesting and challenging. Traditionally, Khmer children are seen and not heard by their elders, whilst corporeal punishment is still practiced in some schools. These conservative values are particularly entrenched within the poverty-stricken, rural areas where KHEN works, which were Khmer Rouge strongholds until the early 1990s. In Samlout, the horror of the Khmer Rouge is living memory, with perpetrators literally living next door to their victims. It is within this context that KHEN tries to encourage child protection and a renewed respect for human rights.
Modern Cambodia has an appalling human rights record with rampant corruption, government-fueled violence and a 30-year regime under the iron grip of Hun Sen. Here, many children are victims of abuse, exploitation or neglect. I was startled and appalled to find out that over 75% of children in orphanages in Cambodia are not orphans, but are either abandoned by their impoverished families to reduce the burden of raising a child or aggressively recruited by “orphanage” directors seeking to expand their business in voluntourism. Children are not tourist attractions, so we must all be alert and support only responsible, accredited Child Safe Organisations like KHEN.
Working here has also opened my eyes to the importance of community-based development. Capacity-building for all stakeholders, from schoolchildren to commune councils, to understand their rights and responsibilities is key for implementation of human rights. Until these rights are known and respected, human rights are, like so many of Cambodian laws, ineffectual. KHEN has emphasised this, by collaborating closely with communities to run Child Rights education programs and placing staff in rural offices to maintain channels of communication.
Undoubtedly, it is the people here who have made this experience so incredible. Everyone at KHEN warmly welcomed Jessica and I from the start, with invitations to field trips to partner schools, education conferences and family picnics. We’ve learnt basic Khmer from a lovely (and patient) teacher, received spontaneous invites to weddings and interviewed inspirational representatives from UN Women and UNICEF.
On our spare weekends, Jessica and I traipsed around Cambodia in our sassy pant suits (a fashion-essential for any middle-aged Cambodian woman who appreciates both comfort and style). From the floating villages of the Tonle Sap, to the majesty of Angkor temples and the remote Indigenous forest communities of Ratanakiri, we feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to live and work in such a beautiful country.
To anyone thinking about doing a PACE International project, don’t hold back. If you are lucky enough to come to Cambodia, phnom-enal experiences await. But always remember; be careful, respectful and, above all, bring an open mind.