From March 20 to April 2, 2013, IPJ Interim Executive Director Dee Aker and Program Officer Zahra Ismail were in Cambodia to conduct trainings for women in politics. The trip was a follow-up to last year’s trainings, and was again organized by Khmer Ahimsa, an NGO headed by Woman PeaceMaker Thavory Huot.
“I have, since I saw you last, been working to bring other women into politics — but women have many responsibilities and it’s hard to convince them that this is important. So I am here to get more tools to do so.”
Our return to Cambodia was met with many similar statements. Dee and I were inspired not only by the passion and self-determination of participants, but how through our few days together they gained confidence and built trust, particularly across party lines. Eager to get as much out of our and their time together they even requested we start at 7:30 a.m. instead of 8:30, one woman staying until just two hours before her wedding!
In Barsedth (west of Phnom Penh), where the sun beats down mercilessly on the dusty ground, we found ourselves in the presence of 28 women leaders in brightly colored sarongs. The women included commune councilors, village chiefs, district education and women’s affairs officials, and the deputy district governor for the impoverished and underdeveloped area.
As participants introduced themselves we discovered that this was, for some of them, their first encounter with women from other districts in the province. Shy but eager, they jumped into each exercise and discussion with increasing energy as their first day together passed. They were oriented to local solutions, not expecting NGOs or outsiders to be the source of resolving issues — issues that ranged from access to community water pumps to convincing rural couples to get birth certificates for their newborns.
Back in Phnom Penh, our training brought together participants from the capital with women from three other provinces, including a number of women who participated in our training last year. Many shared that they had utilized the tools and skills learned to bring one or two, and in some cases even three, new women on board — an amazing feat in a context in which women are not encouraged to move out of their traditional family roles, and where a clampdown on freedom of speech, assembly and movement in anticipation of elections later this year provides little motivation.
As we discussed challenges together, and shared a recent Al Jazeera report on gang rape in Cambodia, the necessity of working across party lines in order to affect change grew increasingly apparent. “Women hold the key to sustainable peace,” participants voiced one after another.
“We must be brave,” explained one woman, “so that women can play a role in decision making, and issues such as this can be addressed.”