Tuesday, May 31, 2016

14 years on: the Cambodian child who sat across from world leaders

We spoke with Rattana Lay, who back in 2002 and 2007 represented her fellow Cambodian children at the ‘World Fit for Children’ special sessions at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

2007: Rattana Lay (sits in the middle wearing beige vest) during
a group discussion session at UNICEF Headquarters with other
child representatives at the ‘World Fit for Children +5’ follow-up special session
Photo courtesy of Rattana Lay

1.    Can you tell us about yourself?

I am Rattana LAY and I’m 26 years old. I live in Phnom Penh but my original home town is in Takeo province.

When I was in my early teens, I was a leader of a children’s club in Takeo province. I continued my secondary school education in Phnom Penh and started volunteering as a leader of the Child Support Team at the NGO, Coalition on the Rights of the Child (NGO CRC). After I finished high school, I received a full scholarship to the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) to study media management.

I continued my voluntary work while attending university. I also worked part-time as a radio presenter at BBC World Service Trust. After graduation, I worked as a communications officer at a Spanish NGO called Peace and Development, working on preventing violence against women. I was recently awarded a scholarship to study global media communication in Australia and I’m currently attending an intensive English course here in Phnom Penh.

2.    What led you to participating at the UN ‘World Fit for Children’?

In 2002, when I was 12 years old, a leader of the children’s club in Takeo province told me that I was going to be supported by UNICEF to join the World Fit for Children meeting in New York to represent Cambodian children. This was a special session at the United Nations General Assembly solely for children and with participation of children. World leaders, government officials and NGOs–and for the first time ever in the history of the UN–more than 600 children, were represented at the session.

I was the only child who brought children’s issues from Cambodia to share with other children from all over the world. I brought our problems, suggestions and recommendations to governments at the UN. Before I left Cambodia for the US, the UNICEF country representative invited me to get to know UNICEF, and shared with me some information about the UN and the General Assembly.

In 2007, there was a follow-up special session at the UN called ‘World Fit for Children +5’. It was five years after the first meeting, where everyone came together again and shared information about the implementation of our recommendations, achievements and obstacles.

I felt over the moon at that time. I was proud to be a child representative to share our problems with the world. There were a few children from each country who joined the event, supported by their governments’ funding and NGOs. Although I was the only child from Cambodia, I was thankful for UNICEF’s efforts to make the voice of Cambodian children heard at the UN.

3.    What was the outcome of your participation as a child representative in the ‘World Fit for Children’?

I conveyed to my country’s government children’s problems and suggestions. The recommendations were included in government action plans and NGO work plans. When I came back from New York, I played the role of messenger. I shared all the information about what happened at the special session at the UN General Assembly and the results of the meeting with children’s clubs and other children’s networks. I also participated in a press conference when I was back in Cambodia to share my experience nationally. 

Child Representatives at the United Nations Headquarters
during the ‘World Fit for Children +5’ follow-up special session held in 2007
Photo courtesy of Rattana Lay

4.    What did you learn from this experience?

Without the support from UNICEF, I would not have had a chance to get out of my box and explore the outside world as a child. I also would not have had the opportunity to show my potential and courage as a child representative from Cambodia. It was a great chance to broaden my general knowledge, interact with other cultures and build my network with other children.

I admired my fellow child participants and I told myself that, one day, I could also do what they could do, even if not right away. At that time, I could hardly speak English or use the Internet, which limited my ability to communicate. I realized these were areas I wanted to develop, and so when I returned to Cambodia, I started learning English and how to use the computer.

I think this experience influenced my future dreams and outlook. I think I became stronger and more confident. I came to believe in myself and that children have the ability to be involved in addressing all problems that affect them. I aspired to be a good public speaker and to organize such a big event like the one I was able to join. And I knew that to reach this dream, I had to study hard first.

5.    What are your future plans?

When I was younger I wanted to become a president of a youth/children’s association. I wanted to mobilize children and young people to join hands to fight for children’s rights in Cambodia. Along the way, I also became interested in the field of media and communication through my work on children and women’s rights. In the future, I want to become a communication manager in an organization where I can contribute my knowledge and skills.

2015: Rattana Lay poses at the ‘Good Men’ community parade event
which she helped organize in Kampong Speu province to raise
awareness of violence against women and girls in Cambodia
Photo courtesy of Rattana Lay

6.    Do you have a message you would like to give to Cambodian children and young people?

I would like to say that knowledge is power. The more you learn the more you know. From my experience I can say that no matter how difficult your situation is, one day you will be successful.

I also encourage young people to be involved in volunteering work and social work because this is how you get to learn about and encounter many social problems and how we can tackle them.

7.    What do you hope for the children of Cambodia?

I hope in the near future children will get their full rights, especially their right to protection. They must be protected from any threats, including exploitation, trafficking and abuse. I believe the most important thing is for parents to know and understand what the rights of their children are, because they are the ones who are closest to the children and who can provide them with a safe environment. If they know their children’s rights, they will more likely treat and look after their children properly. 

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