Sunday, October 11, 2015

Growing up in Cambodia: "Power of the Adolescent Girl"

By Ariel Hofher

Keo Dali and Paeun Paatajeudy, members of UNICEF Cambodia's Youth Representative Group
© UNICEFCambodia/2015/Ariel Hofher

Keo Dalis (left), is a 15 year old girl living in Toul Sambo village, Dangkor distict. Paeun Paatajeudy (right), is an 18 year old girl living in Russey Keo village, Stung Meanchey district. Both are active in UNICEF Cambodia’s Youth Representative Group proving that adolescent girls can be actors in positive change. The urban poor communities where the girls live are about a 30 minute drive or less than 20km from each other in Phnom Penh. Both communities face similar challenges for example, a lack of access in the provision of education for children that is compounded by high rates of poverty. Despite the low socio-economic conditions within their communities, they both exude “Girl Power” because they recognize girls’ rights and the unique challenges faced by girls in their community, throughout Cambodia, and around the world.

Dalis lives with her parents, her brother and sister; she is the middle child. Paatajeudy lives with her mother, grandmother, her younger brother and younger sister. Both girls told UNICEF that their villages are “ordinary” and if you were to visit them, you would see people living communally side-by-side. For Paatajeudy however, her village is beside the Stung Meanchey Municipal Waste Dump which, although closed six years ago, remains a site of vulnerable living.

“You see children living on or next to the mountains of garbage; they live amongst the sewage,” she says. Paatajeudy explains that “because of poverty and financial difficulties of the families, many of the children in the dumpsite are deprived of going to school and receiving an education.”

Informal fees that limit a child's opportunity to go to school include the cost of school uniforms, learning materials, and transportation.

Education is important to both girls. According to Dalis, “school is a place that provides knowledge to children, myself included, and is also a way to prevent drug use.” Similarly, Paatajeudy says “school is important because it is a place that provides knowledge and if you are educated, then family conditions can improve.”

Both girls are in agreement that “if a lot of children go to school and receive an education, then Cambodia will develop.”

In November, the girls will be returning to school and are looking forward to their favorite class: Khmer Literature. Dalis will be riding her bicycle for about 15 minutes to the Dangkor Lower Secondary School and will be entering Grade 9. Paatejudy explains that the Bak Touk High School where she will be entering Grade 12 is far from her home. “To get to school, I will take my moto because of the distance. When there is traffic, it will take me an hour to get to school.” Both girls like their teachers.

The girls are engaged in helping their individual villages overcome their challenges. “In my village, there are two community organizations: a youth group and a children’s group,” explains Paatejudy. “There is a free (of cost) space where I teach children about children’s rights. When children need support, we discuss with them how to overcome their challenges.” Part of these lessons includes “encouraging children to go to school and to help the community by picking up the surrounding garbage.” However, this is no simple task. “The challenge I face is that small children are difficult to negotiate with, especially because I am not a professional.” Like Paatejudy, Dalis also seeks out the children in her village to teach them about the importance of going to school.

Despite the challenges in their communities, they both have a message for all of the girls in Cambodia.

Paatejudy: “I would inform girls on the importance of listening to your parents, and don’t choose to work instead of going to school because you can find things out there that can be a bad influence on your life.”
Dalis: “Please go to school and if you can, participate in playing a sport too.”

Although some may see the girls as adolescents because of their age, they have a mature vision for the future of Cambodia. Both girls say that they would like to see all of the children and youth receive an education, “so that they are able to participate and help increase innovations,” added Paatejudy.

For their own personal futures, Dalis wants to become a lawyer and Paatejudy wants to be involved in social community work for Cambodia’s children and youth.

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