Domestic Violence Awareness Project Update

26 05 2013

Today was my last meeting with the volunteers for the domestic violence project. This week, each village group will present the final two lessons: the impacts of alcohol use and preventing domestic violence. In one week, the project will be complete. I’ll share more about the results then, but for now, here are some quotes (loosely translated) from today’s meeting that help show the situation in the villages, the attitudes of the project volunteers, and the impact of the project.

A volunteer talks about the different kinds of domestic violence

A volunteer talks about the different kinds of domestic violence

On the current situation:

“We have a lot of domestic violence in the village. The only way to prevent it is to educate them. Educate them every day. Educate them always.”

“There are a lot of men in my village who drink beer. They don’t really work. They come together to drink every day. Then some of them go home and beat their wives or kids.”


On the community education sessions:

“When we go promote these [domestic violence awareness] events, men don’t come. They say, ‘It’s women’s rights. It’s women’s rights,’ and they don’t participate.”

“Before, only ten people would come to community meetings. Now, maybe twenty or thirty come participate. It’s much more than before.”


On preventing domestic violence:

“We come home from work, everyone’s exhausted, and the children are crying, the dishes need to be done, the rice needs to be made. We can prevent domestic violence by helping each other. Help each other with the children, with the rice. If we help each other, there’s no violence.”

“If we feel angry or in a bad mood, we can go to work or go exercise instead. This is a way to prevent domestic violence. We can end it directly.”


On the impact of the project:

“Now, we are brave enough to talk about this [domestic violence] in the community.”

“A good thing is that the people in the village have a lot more knowledge about domestic violence and children’s rights now.”


Camp GLOW 2013

7 05 2013

Last weekend was the third annual Camp GLOW in Siem Reap. Sixty-three students from seven secondary schools came to learn about women’s health and empowerment at this four-day workshop. I can’t say enough wonderful things about GLOW – it really is one of my favorite Peace Corps activities.

This year’s t-shirt design

You might remember from last year that Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a project carried out by Peace Corps volunteers across the globe. It’s an opportunity to bring girls together from different communities to share their experiences and build their leadership capacity. Like last year, the camp was funded primarily through USAID’s Small Project Assistance fund, with help from each of the participating communities. However, this year the project grew in size – from 39 girls from three schools to 63 students from seven schools. I brought 11 girls from my site, all of whom had been actively involved in my weekly health club.

Posing with some of the girls

Posing with some of the girls

Our philosophy with Camp GLOW has always been to bring in competent, inspiring Khmer women to lead the sessions, and this year was no different. The first two days of the camp were led by the staff at Our Strength, who focused on sexual health and healthy relationships. The Women’s Resource Center joined us again this year as well, leading activities on self-awareness, goal setting, and community education. There was one new addition to the line-up this year though, as we asked students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh to lead a 4-hour session on career planning.

What does it take to be a good teacher?

In addition to the education sessions, there were plenty of fun activities to keep the girls engaged, including a newspaper fashion show, a pizza party, and a trip to Angkor Wat.

Making a traditional Cambodian outfit out of newspaper

Making a traditional Cambodian outfit out of newspaper

Cute nas

Cute nas

Now that the camp is finished, each group of girls is planning to teach 100 community members about what they learned at GLOW. Having seen the way that my girls organized and led the domestic violence education event for nearly 500 people in March, I feel confident that they will do a great job passing on what they’ve learned. Even on the van ride home from the camp, the girls were fearlessly teaching the other passengers about menstruation and reproductive anatomy.

For more pictures of GLOW, click here.


This Year’s Girls’ Club

30 03 2013

I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned much about my girls’ club this year because, well, they’re amazing! I’ve been meeting with a group of 25-30 eleventh graders weekly since January. I wasn’t able to find a counterpart to help me teach this year so I decided to have the girls themselves co-teach with me. Each week, we pick a different topic related to health or gender, and one student volunteers to co-teach with me. I usually meet with that student once individually to plan the lesson and review the content. Then, later in the week, the student helps me teach the lesson to the rest of the class. Not only does this help the girls practice their own leadership skills, they’re often better at conveying the messages in more engaging and easy-to-understand formats than I am because of the language barrier. Some of our classes this year have covered nutrition, menstruation, and gender roles.

One of the club participants acting out her role as the mother in the role play

One of the club participants acting out her role as the mother in the role play

In February, I met with the girls to teach about International Women’s Day, which is celebrated each year on March 8. Like last year, I thought that this presented a good opportunity for the girls to organize a small project to celebrate women’s rights. We first talked about different aspects of being women in Cambodian society, shared stories about women we admire, and talked about our own goals for the future. Then, I tasked them with completing a project, any project, to mark the special day. After much deliberation, the girls decided they wanted to do a role play about domestic violence. I reminded them that were in charge of the entire process, from writing the script, to acting it out, organizing the performance, gathering props, and fundraising if needed. They enthusiastically agreed. They had one catch: They wouldn’t be able to organize it in time for March 8. They asked if they could perform later in the month.

In the weeks that followed, the girls met frequently, even during exam week. This week, for example, they met for eight hours of preparation. They scheduled a meeting with the school director to ask for permission to perform at the school. They invited all of the teachers to join. They fundraised the cost of a sound system and microphones. They recruited some boys to play the male parts. They wrote and memorized a 40-minute script that illustrated multiple types of domestic violence. They were truly incredible.

When the group was asked, "Who wants to be the village chief," this girl bolted up. "Me! Me! Me!"

When the group was asked, “Who wants to be the village chief,” this girl bolted up. “Me! Me! Me!”

And today was the big day! Today was the day they acted out their role play for  between 400-500 students and teachers. Not surprisingly, I thought they were absolutely fantastic! I can remember being in high school plays, getting nervous to perform in front of the 100 or so people who would show up in the middle school gym where we held the events. Now, multiple that by five! And add in the fact that there was no adult director, no make up artist, no costumes or props. They put it all together themselves, and I have to admit that it was one of the most organized Khmer events I have attended during my service!

The girls’ club will take a break for few weeks now. Khmer New Year means that classes are suspended for vacation and students return to their villages. Tim and I will be heading out for vacation too, but I’m excited to meet with the girls again when we get back.

Setting the scene to educate about child abuse

Setting the scene to educate about child abuse

During our first meeting after Khmer New Year, I will be announcing which 10 of the thirty girls will be attending Camp GLOW in May. Our provincial girls’ empowerment camp has been funded again this year, with girls from six communities joining the activities. Each community can only bring ten students, which means I had to find a way to choose who would attend. Taking into account club attendance, leadership qualities, and a written application form, I decided today which ten it will be. They are all wonderfully kind, brave, and socially-minded young women. Just the type of students who can benefit the most from GLOW. Although narrowing it down was difficult, I couldn’t be happier about the group. Only one short month until GLOW!


Happy International Women’s Day!

8 03 2013

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today marks the 102nd anniversary of the holiday, which originated in the United States as a day to promote equal rights. The United Nations’ theme for this year is “A Promise is a Promise: Time for Action to End Violence Against Women.” If you’re looking for a way to celebrate women and put an end to gender-based violence, please consider giving to my project. We’re scheduled to start training community members on how to prevent domestic violence and support victims of abuse later this month, but the project can’t begin without your help! Please click on the link below to learn more or to make a donation.


What Women Want

13 02 2013

As part of the strategic planning work I’m doing with the Women’s Resource Center in Siem Reap, we’ve recently conducted a pair of focus groups with the village chiefs in the area near the center’s location. We met with the local leaders to ask them about the issues facing women in the villages and the available support systems for those women. These villages are about 60k from where Tim and I are living, but I thought I’d share some of the results because they mirror the reality that we see here at site, as well. The next step will be doing in-depth interviews with women in these villages so we can get their opinions directly. But first, we wanted to hear about trends at the village level.

The village chiefs

The village chiefs and NGO staff

Biggest Challenge: When asked what issues women most often brought up to the village chiefs, all but one mentioned domestic violence, making it the most cited response. The village chiefs said that domestic violence was most often caused by men drinking too much, being unfaithful or getting jealous. Domestic violence was also listed as the most common reason for divorce.

Maternal Mortality: Interestingly enough, the village chiefs claimed that there had not been a single woman who had died in childbirth in their respective villages during the year 2012. This sentiment is often echoed by the village health volunteers and health center staff at our site too. They claim that there has been a lot of education on the idea of giving birth at the health center, thus eliminating maternal mortality in the area. Nationally, the statistics for maternal mortality actually show an increase in deaths between 2000-2010 so the responses from the village chiefs bring more questions than they do answers.

Girls’ education hasn’t been a priority in Cambodia

Illiteracy: Many of the chiefs said that illiteracy was a problem, particularly for older women who lived through the Pol Pot regime and weren’t able to study as children. A couple mentioned the widely-held belief that educating boys is more beneficial for a family than educating a girl. They also said that girls often had to drop out of school after a couple of years of schooling so they could help their parents make money. Now, as older women, it doesn’t seem as though the women are interested in learning to read or write. According to the village chiefs, many think it’s too late or wouldn’t be able to come to classes regularly.

Migrant Work: More than half of the village chiefs said that they had women in their communities who migrated for work, often to Thailand or Malaysia. Men often migrate to work in manual labor positions, while women are more often domestic workers. Women who travel abroad by themselves are at an increased risk for trafficking, both in terms of labor and sex work. Since these communities are so close to the Thai border – and Siem Reap, which is known as a hotspot for prostitution– this is an especially important issue to explore.

Drugs: Drug use was reported, although it was not common – especially among women. The two most commonly cited drugs were ice and marijuana. Men were said to use these drugs, as well as alcohol, more frequently than women.




Asking for your help one final time: Please donate

24 01 2013

First of all, thank you. You all have been incredibly supportive during our Peace Corps experience so far. You helped Tim’s hospitality project get (more than) fully funded in a matter of days, you tried your best to help us win the money for the geography club (we didn’t win, but still appreciate all the “likes” and shares) — and now, one last time, we need your help.


I’m currently fundraising for what will be my final endeavor during my PC Cambodia stint: a community-based domestic violence education project. In nearly every discussion I’ve had about community development with village chiefs, teachers, NGO staff members and secondary students at my site, they’ve all identified domestic violence as being a very top priority in our area. According to a recent report, half of Cambodians surveyed believe that a husband is justified in shooting, stabbing, or throwing acid at his wife if she is disrespectful or argumentative. I’m hoping to create safer communities for women by training volunteers on conducting community-based education sessions, mitigating conflict, providing referrals for victims of abuse, and assisting others in drafting personal safety plans.

To make a donation, please head to this site:

Any contribution would be greatly appreciated and would be used toward fostering well-informed, safe and just communities. (Not to mention, it’s tax deductible!)


Learning about Gender Roles

12 01 2013

I just can’t say enough how much I enjoy working with the Women’s Resource Center in Siem Reap. Yesterday, the manager Pisey came out to our high school to lead a session on gender roles as a part of a larger project to pilot some new health lessons written by a well-known international organization. I’ve been working with the WRC on a number of small projects recently, including planning for Camp GLOW 2013 (more on that later!) and the strategic planning project I’ve mentioned briefly before. It’s always refreshing and inspiring to work with such a positive and motivated young woman.


During yesterday’s lesson, Pisey introduced the difference between gender and sex to the 37 high school students who attended, guiding them through activities to think more deeply about how their own gender affects their experiences, health and possibilities. As always, the students were very engaged and participated actively in all of the sessions.


For more pictures from the session, check out the Facebook album here


GLOW Girls Talking about their Golden Doors

27 10 2012

Today, for the final step of Camp GLOW, the girls from my village led an education session for forty of their peers. After weeks of deliberation, they decided to teach on the female reproductive system and menstruation. In a culture that considers sex far more taboo than even the most conservative of places in the US, I found this decision to be brave and inspiring.

Look at those GLOW girls teach!

The GLOW line-up in their awesomely bright t-shirts.

The GLOW girls spent a full 90 minutes teaching about female anatomy, hygiene, and menstruation. They used loads of good teaching techniques to involve the other students and check if they were retaining the new information. I’m so proud of these girls and hope that some of them will find time in their busy senior schedules to work with me on some upcoming projects.


The Index: Women in Cambodia

5 09 2012

Here’s the latest article for my hometown newspaper, The Index.

Much of my work in Cambodia has consisted of working with women and girls. Last year, for example, I led a girls’ health club at the high school. More recently, I organized a girls’ leadership and empowerment camp. Currently, I’m working with a local nonprofit to field test lessons about gender-based violence, as well as managing a project that helps mothers identify ways to raise healthy kids.

These activities, initially borne out of a desire to address the inequalities and injustices faced by Cambodian women, have also helped deepen my own understanding of the complex situation for women here.

Some of the inequalities Cambodian women face don’t seem very different from those facing women in the United States: lower wages for the same work, underrepresentation in leadership positions, domestic violence, and rape. In addition, women here, like in many American households, bear the majority of childrearing responsibilities, are in charge of nearly all household chores and are expected to work outside of the home, as well.

Although some of these issues may seem familiar, some of the struggles Cambodian women confront are all but unimaginable for many in the US. Human trafficking is rampant, particularly near the Thai border and in tourist hotspots. Arranged marriages are still all too common in the countryside. Each year, about 2,000 Cambodian mothers die during childbirth. Plus, sweatshop workers are almost exclusively women, and although this is one of the only steady employment opportunities for unskilled female laborers, it often comes at a high risk due to the hazardous conditions of many factories.

Women’s social roles are also restricted to a degree that I have not seen in mainstream America. There’s an often-cited Khmer proverb that compares women to a piece of fine cloth and men to a piece of gold. The cloth, if stained, is impossible to clean. However, if a piece of gold becomes dirty, one can simply wipe the dirt off, making the gold shiny once again. In the context of modern-day Cambodia, this means that a woman’s reputation can be permanently destroyed for drinking a single beer in public, lighting a cigarette or even being in a room alone with a man.

These social norms depend heavily on geographic location, with big cities seeing more relaxed rules. However, even in the village where I’ve been living, a mere 60 kilometers from the country’s most touristed and, arguably, progressive city, these narrow ideas of gender prevail.

You don’t have to look hard to find exceptions though. There are countless women bucking traditional gender roles and attempting to address inequalities head-on. There’s Khim Pisey who, with just a high school education, has gone on to manage a drop-in center for local women. There is Somaly Mam, whose anti-trafficking work has made international headlines. There’s Jessica Lisha Srin, a Cambodian rapper who is paving a new road for women the music industry. And there are the high school students from my leadership camp who are now educating their community members about domestic violence.

Cambodia has a long way to go before women can enjoy the same privileges as men, but after spending some time here it becomes easy to see that although the challenges are innumerable, so, too, are the women who, one step at a time, are fighting for a better Cambodia.


Camp GLOW: Mission Accomplished

8 08 2012

Just as Tim’s hospitality project is taking off, one of mine is coming to a close. Last week, thirty-nine high school girls, two Cambodian teachers, four NGO staff members and five Peace Corps Volunteers gathered at the Siem Reap Provincial Teacher Training Center for a girls’ empowerment camp. The four-day camp focused on women’s health, rights and opportunities.

On Thursday, all of the girls, aged 14-20, arrived to the guesthouse. They came from three different villages, each approximately an hour or two outside of Siem Reap. This was the first time for some of them to ever visit Siem Reap, and the majority had never stayed in a guesthouse before. They excitedly settled into their rooms and then made the three minute walk over to the training center where we studied.

Group shot

For the first two days, staff from the Battambang-based NGO Our Strength led sessions about women’s health. One of the sessions that the girls cited as being the most informative and important was on menstruation and hygiene. Most of these topics are not taught in school, and the girls said they have never had an opportunity to ask such sensitive questions before. Other sessions touched on issues like sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, gender, Cambodian beliefs about sexuality, healthy relationships, etc. There were also several Q&A sessions, during which the girls demonstrated their complete trust in and respect for the presenters by asking a huge number of questions about their own health and bodies.

During a session related to gender roles

Group work

One thing that impressed me was how well the presenters integrated with the girls. When we would walk to a nearby restaurant together to eat, the staff would always sit and talk with the girls. They would call girls by name, take endless photos with them, and treat them like peers. Additionally, as I wrote in a recent email to the organization, the staff “modeled what it means to be strong, smart, socially-minded Cambodian women.” It was a real pleasure getting to know them and working alongside them.

The third day, we had an equally impressive speaker come from the Women’s Resource Center in Siem Reap. Having worked with the organization before, I knew that Pisey would do a great job. The third day, which started with a giggle-filled yoga session, focused on important issues like self-awareness, domestic violence and goal setting. Although they enjoyed all of the sessions, the girls really expressed an interest in the domestic violence part. In fact, two of the three groups of girls decided that they would teach their communities what they had learned about domestic violence.

Pisey facilitating a session on self-awareness

The fourth day was all about preparing the girls to be good community educators because each group is required to go back to their community to teach one aspect of what they learned at Camp GLOW. The girls enthusiastically prepared and presented mock sessions before diving into the plans for their real presentations. My group of girls will be coming over tomorrow to finish their lesson plan and to set a date for the education session(s). They think that domestic violence is an important issue in our community, and I whole-heartedly agree. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Overall, I think the girls were exposed to a lot of new information. The knowledge-based tests show that the girls nearly doubled their understanding of issues related to sexual and reproductive health. Compared to the first day, more girls at the end of the camp also indicated that they “have a lot of friends,” “are proud of themselves,” “have goals that they can achieve” and “are generally happy people.”

In fact, although the knowledge gained was certainly an important part of the camp, I think there was a lot more to be gained from the experience. It was amazing to watch how three distinct groups of shy, insular girls melded into one big, happy group of friends over the course of four days. One of the best activities we did was to have each girl decorate a paper bag with her name on it and hang it on the wall. Throughout the camp, the other girls would then write nice things about that girl and put it in her bag. At the end of the camp, each girl had a bag filled with compliments and the phone numbers of her new friends. This activity was one that definitely encouraged the girls to become closer.

Decorating paper bags

The beautifully decorated bags hanging from the wall

There were other experiences that were uncommon, or even brand new, for the girls. For example, they got to express themselves creatively as they decorated t-shirts, made bracelets and painted each others’ nails during the evening activities. They got to see a different side of their own country when we took a field trip to Siem Reap’s touristy night market and the town’s only shopping mall. They ate new foods at Lucky Burger, learned new ways to exercise through dance and yoga, and got to make real connections with the volunteers living in their towns.

First, we exercise…

Then we eat fast food

And THEN we eat ice cream. It’s the American way.

Just the experience of being away from families was a big deal for these girls, who often live in cramped quarters where they share a sleeping space with all of their family members. This culture does not allow for much independence so it was an interesting chance for them to examine themselves as individuals. This might all be very Western-slanting, but the girls echoed these ideas as well.

The camp culminated in a closing ceremony, where we gave each girl a certificate and a photo of all of the girls together. We also played a slide show of photos taken throughout the camp. While the girls cheered, laughed and blushed as their faces appeared on the big screen, it was hard not to get emotional. I thought back to all of the activities I did as a teen that I still vividly remember. These experiences – band trips, summer camps, Youth in Government – all played a part in my development. I can only hope that the students who came to Camp GLOW will look back on this experience with the same fondness and appreciation that I feel when I think back on my own. Either way, the most important thing is that they learned and will retain important information related to their health and well being.

The closing ceremony

Camp GLOW 2012 is over, but we’re already looking ahead to next year. In the meantime, I am eager to continue working with the girls as they plan and execute their community education sessions.

You can check out more pictures of the camp here.