Immersion, Cambodia- 2018
Updated: Oct 30, 2019
All these experiences have been made possible thanks to the incredible Ayana Journeys.
Tomorrow I will embark on the most significant component of my International Development Degree. Two years of interesting and challenging content has been preparing me for this experience. With ten other peers, I will be spending four weeks in Cambodia observing long term development organisations which are currently addressing crucial development issues within the country.
“With ten other peers, I will be spending four weeks in Cambodia observing long term development organisations which are currently addressing crucial development issues within the country. .”
We will be observing this experience through a development perspective and community based learning approach, which has allowed us the amazing opportunity to interact with a number of development practitioners and locals. The focus of this experience is to study and reflect on various approaches to humanitarian and development work; with the main goal of emerging from this experience ready to apply what we learn to our future careers once we graduate at the end of the year.
Everything we observe will be entirely focused on the empowerment of individuals and communities within Cambodia, all while focusing on breaking the cycle of dependency from foreign aid and support. Issues we will be looking at include: poverty, human trafficking, reviving/ preserving cultural practices lost in the genocide, women empowerment, children's education, improving agricultural production, peace and conflict as well as the impacts of voluntourism.
This is such an incredibly special opportunity for us all and something I have always dreamed of doing. I have come a long away from my young and niave volunteering days and truly hope this experience will only further my journey in pursuing a career in social justice and international development in the most ethical, sustainable and effective/ beneficial way.
Learning Cambodia's Past
Documentation Centre of Cambodia and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum.
Challenging day yesterday. It was our first day being immersed with an NGO and learning the tragic history of the Cambodian people. We had the privilege of engaging with the Documentation Centre of Cambodia. A brilliant organisation who has worked tirelessly for over two decades to compile an extensive archive of original documents and related evidence pertaining to the 1975-1979 regime of the Khmer Rouge. The organisation has collected more than one million pieces of evidence- which has helped aid the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia to successfully prosecute senior level regime leaders.
We also had the privilege of visiting Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, or better known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). S-21 became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country during the Khmer Rouge Regime. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived. A truly haunting day -learning first hand the horrific atrocities committed only 43 years ago. Being witness to the blood stains of victims left in every room is a horrific reminder of the tragedy that occurred and is something that has moved me so deeply.
“ Being witness to the blood stains of victims left in every room is a horrific reminder of the tragedy that occurred and is something that has moved me so deeply.”
Although Cambodia is thriving decades on in its revival from the Khmer Regime, the country also suffers extremely sad consequences from this genocide; this is evident through the vast poverty and social justice issues the country now faces. I hope to share some of these issues with you all as I delve deeper into this experience.
The almighty Mekong River (pictured above) has hundreds of stories to tell; it is the blood flowing through the heart of Cambodia. It was nice to finish off here last night after such a heavy, but extremely important day.
Five Days on Koh Pdao Island.
“The small relationships we formed with our host families are a beautiful testament to the human connection and the simplicity's of life."
Five days on Koh Pdao island; one of the largest islands of the Mekong River, within the Kratie Province. An island with no running water or electricity. An island that has challenged us all- mentally and physically, but has also provided us with such precious and valuable life lessons and knowledge that we will all hopefully take with us and practice in our own lives back home.
Each one of us have been staying with a family who live on the island. And with such multitudes of generosity and love, they have provided us accommodation- despite our ignorant cultural understandings and language barriers. Their generosity and selflessness to accommodate for our needs, all whilst trying to celebrate Khmer New Year (one of the largest celebrations of the year for Cambodian's), was a privilege and honour.
The small relationships we formed with our host families are a beautiful testament to the human connection and the simplicity's of life. How wonderful it is to have a good belly laugh with a stranger trying to figure out a situation we both are not totally sure of. I will definitely not miss being outside in 42 degrees everyday, but I will miss the sense of love and acceptance I felt, despite the many barriers faced during these five days on this challenging yet beautiful island.
Child Safe Movement
Child Safe is a global movement empowering people to protect children.
Yesterday we had the privilege of meeting with Child Safe. Child Safe is a global movement empowering people to protect children. Within Cambodia, the number of children being pushed into the margins of society is increasing. Child Safe works to protect children and youth who are: living and working on the streets, using drugs, affected by HIV, victims of abuse and domestic violence, involved in the sex trade, children out of school or unemployed, living in poverty or affected in any other way that prevents them from having their internationally recognised rights as children fulfilled.
An issue heavily raised was regarding voluntourism and the issue of volunteering within orphanages. Orphanage voluntourism does infinitely more harm than good. The demand is creating the supply and voluntourism fuels the growth of these orphanages. Between 2005 and 2011, orphanages increased by 75%. There is also strong evidence to suggest that the vast profit driven orphanage industry has contributed significantly to child trafficking. In 2017- over 25,000 children benefited from direct emergency intervention from the Child Safe movement- that figure alone, proves how clearly evident the issue of child abuse and protection is.
“Between 2005 and 2011, orphanages increased by 75%. There is also strong evidence to suggest that the vast profit driven orphanage industry has contributed significantly to child trafficking.”
The more people aware, the better we can protect children. Children are not a tourist attraction- support families not orphanages. On a more positive note! Australia has begun the discussion on voluntourism- and linked voluntourism with modern slavery - under the new Modern Slavery Act (not yet passed). The progress is slow, but the movement has finally begun!
For more information on the Child Safe Movement, you can visit their website here:
A Place to Be Yourself
A Place to be Yourself, is a Cambodian NGO, located in Siem Reap and founded by an incredibly inspiring Australian man named Jason. It is one of the only safe places for the LGBTIQ+ community within Cambodia. One of APTBY’s goals is to reduce the stigma around the LGBTIQ+ community in Cambodia and to create an open and accepting space for all. Such an amazing space.
For more information, you can visit their website here:
Jesuit Service Cambodia
Our Stay with the Jesuit Service Cambodia in Siem Reap.
During our stay in Siem Reap, we had the absolute pleasure of staying with the social organisation Jesuit Service Cambodia (JSC). Here is some pretty inspiring information I learnt during our stay with them, as well as a few things I found through research:
In 1980, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) began work with Cambodian refugees and displaced persons in Thai refugee camps during the Cambodian Civil War.
In 1991, through an agreement with the Cambodian Ministry of Social Action, JRS set up an office in Phnom Penh; called Jesuit Service Cambodia. Its first development efforts were with refugees, victims of landmines, poverty and vocational training for people with disabilities.
Australian Sister Denise Coghlan leads the centre and was one of the individuals at the forefront of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.
Their 2013 ‘Disarm the Heart Campaign’ also calls all governments to ban landmines, cluster munitions, nuclear weapons, and to sign the Arms Trade Treaty.
JSC has been the focal point for the Cambodia Campaign to ban landmines and cluster munitions since 1994, and for the monitoring of both Landmine and Cluster Munitions Treaties. JSC has led the movement for survivors to tell their own stories and messages on an international scale.
JSC Cambodia also provides legal and social services to asylum seekers and refugees in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Services include legal statements, appeals, education, and housing. Other forcibly displaced persons include trafficked persons, labour migrants and stateless people. JSC's work has diversified and expanded over time, but has always expanded with a view of serving the disadvantaged, upholding their dignity and rights, alleviating poverty, improving education, and establishing more just relations in the Cambodian society.
For more information, you can visit their website here:
Peace and Reconciliation
Reflection on Peace and Reconciliation within Cambodia after visiting the Killing Fields.
Between 1975 and 1979, nearly two million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge. The twenty years that followed, Cambodia faced resistance towards addressing these horrors. It wasn’t until the over throw of the regime in the late 90's, when the Cambodian people began to discuss and learn of their tragic past and begin to uncover the truth of the Khmer Rouge Regime.
Through retributive trials starting in 2001, the establishment of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia was formed to prosecute those who had committed such mass atrocities during the regime. The establishment of such a body was a significant step forward in achieving justice and acknowledging both the surviving and lost Cambodian victims. Through such trials, there was a hope that the past wouldn’t be forgotten.
Peace and reconciliation is essential within Cambodia to not only let the nation heal, but to also be a lesson for the international community- so that we can avoid future mass atrocities; such as genocide. Peace and reconciliation for the Cambodian people involves a holistic approach. Soth Plai Ngarm suggests in his paper ‘Cambodia Reconciliation’ that a holistic approach needs to address different levels of reconciliation– political, social and emotional. While political reconciliation is important, social and emotional levels of reconciliation is necessary to constitute transformation in order to enable healing.
"Peace and reconciliation is essential within Cambodia to not only let the nation heal, but to also be a lesson for the international community- so that we can avoid future mass atrocities; such as genocide."
While Cambodia has experienced political reconciliation, there has been no national process for healing or social reconciliation. Ngarm suggests that a social transformation to a positive future is less likely to happen if old patterns continue to be strong. Anne Niroshika suggests within her article ‘The Path to Reconciliation in Cambodia’, if Cambodia is to achieve national reconciliation, the youth of Cambodia need to be educated about injustices, passionate about justice and that education is key for this.
Education is essential in remembering and learning from the horrific past of this country- so not only can Cambodia heal, but the global community can learn from these tragic events, and not continue to repeat such horrific injustices.
Pictured above is our visit to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. A special opportunity and an incredibly valuable experience.
Mental Health in Cambodia
Reflection on mental health in Cambodia.
"Mental health may not be one of those things you can see on a balance sheet... anything that takes generations is already too long for donors , ho work on a fiscal year or at best a five year strategic plan basis, to wait around for. Cambodia is not just like every other developing country; a quarter of the population died. You can’t just sweep that under the rug” - Denise Hurby
Mental health within Cambodia can be considered one of the country’s most overlooked issues. Due to stigmatisation and lack of understanding, other health issues have been prioritised.
Considering the recent violent past of the nation, a large statistic of Cambodia live with trauma or other mental health issues. Studies have found that children of mentally ill parents are more likely to develop syndromes also- ultimately, creating a viscous cycle.
This week we had the privilege of meeting with Dr Chhim Sotheara, the executive director of Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO)- one of Cambodia’s ONLY NGOs in the field of mental health care and psychosocial support. An interesting point raised by TPO was regarding post traumatic stress disorders within the country. Cambodian’s have responded to trauma differently to the standard definition of PTSD. Many Cambodian victims of trauma suffer from “broken courage,” as opposed to the Western derived post-traumatic stress disorder. Inconsistent translations to mental health within Cambodia, could make the work of health professionals’ difficult....it’s about finding the right words to translate trauma. The trauma experienced, is personal and individual to the country’s unique history.
According to a 2010 study on the Treatment of Torture Victims, when asked whether effected participants seek help for their mental health: 85.4% answered no. Denise Hurby highlights that neither the government nor donors have prioritised mental health issues. She writes:
“mental health may not be one of those things you can see on a balance sheet... anything that takes generations is already too long for donors, who work on a fiscal year or at best a five year strategic plan basis, to wait around for. Cambodia is not just like every other developing country; a quarter of the population died. You can’t just sweep that under the rug”.
Every Person Counts
Epic Arts is an inclusive arts based NGO in Kampot. Yesterday we had the opportunity to take part in one of their dance workshops. Art is used as a form of expression and empowerment to bring people with and without disabilities together.
Epic Arts is an amazing initiative aiming to reduce the stigma around disability within Cambodia and empower those who haven’t had the same access to opportunities in Cambodian society. Through the universal language of dance and art- inclusion and unity is created and shared.
Ps! If you are ever in Kampot, check out Epic Arts Cafe! It's a brilliant social enterprise of the organisation which employs and supports people with disabilities; with the added bonus of AMAZING food too!
For more information, you can visit their website here:
Gender in Cambodia
Something that’s close to my heart in the development world is gender equality and women empowerment. Throughout our journey, we have had the privilege of meeting multiple NGOs across Cambodia who are attempting to address and tackle certain issues regarding gender inequality.
I’m very blessed to have spent every day of this journey with ten incredible women, who each have brought their own wonderful and unique addition to the group. My reflection on gender equality in Cambodia is as follows:
Siobhan Gorman states: “Socio-economic change in Cambodia is bringing new opportunities and influences as technology advances.....yet Cambodian society is also struggling to regain a sense of national identity through a return to perceived traditional values and ideals in these post-conflict years. Perceptions of gender identity, especially the female gender identity, are closely linked to notions of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, and resistance to changes in gender relations is often strong.”
Although within the Cambodian Constitution, it is stated that women have equal rights, their ability to claim these rights have fallen short due to prevailing traditional societal attitudes and values regarding gender and power. A majority of women in Cambodia are employed in vulnerable sectors, such as the garment industry; with limited access to social benefits and protection.
A topic we focused on significantly when focusing on women- was sex trafficking. Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking. While there is no exact figure on sex workers in Cambodia, it can be estimated that up to 80,000- 100,000 are trafficked each year. UNICEF estimates that 35% of this population is represented by girls under the age of 16.
Pictured above, is a photo of two beautifully inspiring women aiming at tackling issue of sex trafficking, who are also challenging the stigma around sex workers as well as addressing a number of other gender issues- through an amazing NGO called United Sisterhood Alliance.
Empowered women, empower women. I’m so proud to be a woman & to be growing through this experience with such incredibly intelligent and wonderful women; as well as meeting so many more along the way.
For more information on the United Sisterhood Alliance, you can visit their website here:
Banteay Chhmar- exploring an ancient Angkor temple yet to be protected by UNESCO.
Without the UNESCO status, this temple was free from the busy tourist schedule (UNESCO is said to be recognizing this particular site next year). Although UNESCO is important for the preservation of these ancient structures, it was such a privilege to be able to experience this temple in complete isolation and without any limitations.
The community of Banteay Chhmar greeted us at night with a surprise dinner arranged in the grounds of the temple; accompanied with traditional music. We danced in the dark to candle light as we watched a storm roll in with a lighting show in the distance- it was as if the ancient gods of Angkor were dancing with us.
These are the kind of moments in life where we need to step back and recognise the smaller things in life that make us happy. They are the kind of moments where I thank the gods above for the privilege I have been given that has allowed me the ability to encounter such moments. As well as a reminder to continue challenging social injustices, so everyone can feel the same joy I felt that night.
Life is for the living; we all deserve belly laughs and moments of pure joy. If there is one thing that I hope will resonate with at least one person who is reading my posts- it is a quote by George Elliot that reads:
“What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?”.
Our time in Cambodia has come to an end. Four weeks of life changing content and experiences that have shaped and transformed every aspect of my life.
If there is just one thing that I had to choose to take away from this experience and share with you all, it would be the lessons I have learnt that involve each and everyone of our personal impact with development and the ‘developing’ world. As I have mentioned before, the Western perspective and definition of development is inherently contentious; development is a concept that is simply not just black and white.
Although a majority of us have good intentions when approaching the development world, whether that be through the desire to sponsor and volunteer, these good intentions have detrimental impacts. A typical response to people arguing against voluntourism is the notion that “something is better than nothing”-which translates to a very undermining and arrogant position/viewpoint that says, ‘if I do not help, no one will’. Through such a viewpoint, young unskilled people are replacing individuals that have qualifications and beneficial skills. There is an automatic assumption that people within developing countries have no skill, which significantly undermines these nations and automatically gives ‘developed’ nations a superiority.
"Although a majority of us have good intentions when approaching the development world, whether that be through the desire to sponsor and volunteer, these good intentions have detrimental impacts."
Through emotive marketing ploys and voluntourism programs offered, the idea of development itself, is also undermined and presumed ‘easy’. It is wonderful that people want to help social injustices and poverty around the world- however it is essential to educate ourselves first and gain a skill that will actually benefit the society we are wanting to help. When we know better, we can do better. We have to learn before we can help. Essentially the Western narrative of development now involves individuals unlearning and relearning a new perspective- it’s about what WE do day to day; if you want to give back to the world- you must start with yourself first; and be that change we wish to see. This is something I too, am committing myself to.
A simple way of looking at this, is considering the idea that we would not allow such programs and processes to happen in our own country, so why is it okay in other countries? Each and every problem in this world is complex, it’s not as simple as just building a well or teaching children ‘ABC’ 365 days of the year.
Here is a quote by Rafia Zakaria which sums up this idea perfectly:
“Typically, other people’s problems seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve then those of one’s own society. In this context, the contextualised hunger and homelessness in Cambodia and Vietnam is an easy moral choice. The burdens of manic consumption and unabated careerism are not easily pitied as crumbling shanties and begging babies…..in simple terms, the lack of knowledge of other cultures make them easier to help”.
If you want to help, please educate yourselves first. I cannot thank Ayana Journeys enough for this amazing experience. For more information on Ayana Journeys, who provided us with this incredible experience, you can visit their website here: