Building Bridges in Cambodia

From March 25-30, 2012, IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker and Program Officer Zahra Ismail were in Cambodia to conduct trainings requested from women in politics, NGOs and youth organizations during the Women PeaceMakers Asia Regional Network meetings in December.


Women in the Political Sphere: Enhancing Participation and Strengthening Influence
By IPJ Program Officer Zahra Ismail
March 26-27

As we entered the training room on the first day, 30 women turned to greet us, pressing their palms together at the chest and lowering their eyes with a slight bow. We were early, but the women from three different districts around Phnom Penh were ready to begin the morning workshop on enhancing their participation and influence in local and national politics. Dee opened the day by sharing experiences of women involved in decision-making worldwide, highlighting the importance of women’s participation if good governance is to be fostered anywhere.


Over the course of two days, Dee and I provided participants with skills and tools to communicate with confidence, within their own party and across party lines, as well as with their constituents and the larger community. While the energy and engagement was at times confrontational early on, it remained stimulating and enlightening throughout.


Commune representatives (local administration) sharing visions for change in their communities

After meeting in groups with women from different parties to clarify the concerns they had in their communities, a young woman from the main opposition party was quick to come to the floor. Vibrantly direct, she was supported by everyone in the room when she said that domestic violence and poverty were concerns that she and others from the ruling party agreed they needed to work on together. Both shyness and confrontation fell by the wayside as the women shared concerns ranging from maternal health and poverty to gang and domestic violence and the paucity of women in leadership.


Aware that Cambodian women are not often encouraged to take leadership positions in their parties or even talk across party lines, we watched the women transition from quiet curiosity to active engagement and then, on the second day, to an essential realization: that they had more in common than they had ever been allowed to discover.


Seeing timidity and confrontation transform into intense, exploratory discussions, we ended the program with a sense that spaces had opened for the women to work together on the roadblocks to peace — a peace that is just and inclusive.


Youth and NGO Encounters: The Beginnings of Trust
By IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker
March 28-29

Roundtable with peace and human rights NGO leaders in Phnom Penh

In a society where reaching out to those in power and encouraging local responses to problems is often seen as defiant, NGO leaders face great challenges when it comes to trust and human rights.  Zahra and I had the chance to see how NGOs in Cambodia are motivating their communities when we met with a roundtable of NGO leaders to discuss the keys to community collaboration and peacebuilding. The 26 participants identified some of their primary issues and looked for ways to garner greater attention from the community. But it was the next day that we saw even greater hope kindled in a group of youth leaders who Thavory Huot, an IPJ Woman PeaceMaker from Cambodia, had arranged for us to meet.


Before we began our leadership training with 30 youth leaders in Phnom Penh, Zahra and I had been reading an article in The Phnom Penh Post, “Beer girls fight for their rights,” and were expecting to meet a group of educated and/or unemployed youth seeking ways to have more influence in their communities. So we were surprised when our expected group was joined by some very unexpected young trade union leaders and activists. It was a first encounter for everyone, due to Cambodia’s political undertone of containment by those in power. And we had already heard, and seen, that any dissent or support of exchanges across political parties, religions or social classes was uncommon.


Dee Aker exploring communication tools to advance common goals with youth leaders in Phnom Penh

But the young people discovered they shared the same vision for leadership and many common issues of concern: unemployment and fair wages; increased drug use among disillusioned youth; domestic violence; and rising tension among religious and social groups. One young woman who works in a beer hall said, “It is as if society has abandoned not only us, but our families and communities too.” A young man who had been to college told us this was his first time looking at the challenges low wage workers and young women faced. And another young man from a youth organization felt it was important to now support the young women and men he had just met.


By the end of a warm day, the heat and the energy in the room had not diminished. The call for more techniques to identify and deal with their common problems was clear:

“As a youth, I want to spend my life meaningfully.”
“I want to meet these new friends again and work with them.”
“It was a new thing to learn how to organize and think and communicate in this way. And I will share these ideas with the union workers, too.”

After nearly 30 comments like these, Zahra and I left to pack our bags, quite content that it had been a very short week, but a very good one.