Saturday, November 21, 2015

A youth champion for child rights in Cambodia

By Sam Waller

22-year-old Yeang Prathna in his class at the Royal University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Sam Waller

Yeang Prathna is a very busy young man. I meet up with him on a hot Phnom Penh morning at the studios of TVK, one of Cambodia’s leading television stations. He’s here as a mentor to four youngsters, who are participating in a televised discussion on the role of digital media in sexual and reproductive health education. In between takes, everyone stops to listen as Prathna gives advice to the participants. He helps them to relax and be calm.

Once the filming is finished, Prathna heads off to take part in a meeting to plan an upcoming campaign to eliminate violence against girls and women. In the afternoon, it’s over to a local high school to provide training to children who are entered into a debate about sexual harassment. Oh and he’s also studying at university. Well, two universities to be precise.

Prathna gives some advice during the filming of a discussion at TVK in Phnom Penh
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Sam Waller

I first met 22-year-old Prathna because he’s a member of UNICEF’s Youth Representative Group. These 20 children, adolescents and young people are ensuring that Cambodian youth have a voice in the country’s response to violence against children (VAC). By taking part in the development of the government’s action plan to combat VAC, they are ensuring that the perspectives of children and young people are heard.

From there I found out about the full journey of this remarkable young man into a true champion for children’s rights. So where does his story start?

Child rights champion

In 2013 Prathna got involved in a project in Prey Veng province with the group Youth for Change, helping to tackle alcohol abuse and violence by training youth on what to do when they witness violence.  Later that year he returned to his class at the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), where he is studying for a degree in international relations, and got into a discussion with a friend. “Our classmates always want to get involved in society and volunteer, but they don’t know how,” he explains. They decided to form an organization, which they called Joy Cambodia. From four founders, the group now has a membership of more than 30.

“We decided to focus on children’s education in rural Takeo province. We taught English, hygiene and life skills – through role plays and games.” Over five weeks, the group reached 500 primary school children from impoverished backgrounds.

Prathna leading a Joy Cambodia education session in Takeo province
© Yeang Prathna

“We have the chance to study in a good school,” says Prathna. As well his degree at RULE, he is also studying English Literature at the University of Cambodia. “We imagine what children in rural areas face and try to reduce the gap between rich and poor children.” Prathna grew up in Pursat province before moving with his family to Phnom Penh when he was 10. “I am also a child from a rural area. My family were farmers so I know the feeling. If children do not get an education they can’t improve their family situation.”

Since that time, Prathna’s youth work has gone from strength to strength. He has worked with school children in Kampot to raise awareness on ending violence against women and children. He also works for Youth Chhlat, an e-learning platform which is raising awareness about sexual and reproductive health. It has over 50,000 followers on Facebook.

Prathna explains: “People think children should not know about sexual health until they are married. That’s not a good idea, it’s their health. Young people like Facebook and technology, so we have animations to advise them. We don’t tell them what to do but how to be safe, and to think about what is right or wrong.”

Tackling violence against children

I get talking to Prathna about UNICEF’s youth group and why he wanted to get involved in tackling violence against children. He is clearly passionate about protecting children and the role that can be played by young people. “It’s 2015 but violence against children is still a big concern. I want to see violence reducing, children should not have to suffer. Ending violence is not just for experts or older people. It’s important to get youth input to be more effective.”

Prathna makes a point during a meeting of the UNICEF Youth Representative Group
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Sam Waller

Through all of his work with children and youth, Prathna is aware that others look up to him and the projects he is involved in. He also knows that many youngsters in Cambodia want to make a positive contribute to their community, but don’t always know how to take the first step. So what is his advice to other young Cambodians?

“Opportunities don’t always come to you. You have to go to it. Cambodia is a country with a young population and young people have big potential. If they are really interested in helping society, they will improve society.”

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