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Story of Change: Voicing Your Sensitivity for Others

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My name is Amrin Sotheakeo. I was born in Svay Rieng province, I have lived in Phnom Penh since I was young. Since I was in middle school, I have listened to and witnessed a whole lot of stories about gender marginalization against female domestic workers.

Allow me to testify something. Flashing back to 4 years ago, most domestic workers I knew were women who generally were not given equal opportunity as men to pursue their studies. Some were dropouts whose families had limited resources and access to support them in education. More likely than not, they ended up moving to the city, getting married and most specifically, working in domestic fields. What I have seen includes a moment when a young domestic house worker was physically and mentally abused by their house owner and forced to work late at night and get up early to continue the chores. The situation was drastically sensitive and I, the witness, was silent at times. What I remember the most back then was the few questions I said to myself: Why aren’t they running away? How is their mental health? What makes them come to work here? Still, I had no sight of what to do or clues on what I could do to change the circumstance as my inner self urged me to do so. I was silent and I considered myself useless. I wish I had enough courage to stop them from getting belittled or at least speak up for the moment they were unspeakable.

My perspective changed when I began my first year in college, majoring in social work. The inner self of mine, which was once reserved and fearful, was starting to keep alive the desire to prevent the case I had seen. During that fundamental year, I learned that social work is a profession which works to serve the need and bring the right of those who are marginalized and oppressed, by empowering them to act on their problems. By using the terms of ‘marginalized’ and ‘oppressed’, it is obvious that the existence of gender-based violence against women and girls is on a noticeable line. Volunteering at Women Peacemakers has been an eye-opening experience for me to see the hidden corner of this chronic violence. The questions I used to ask myself have now been revealed that above all, it is the lack of gender education in each individual that tends to cause harmful responses in families, communities and soon, the wider society. Needless to say, it does matter for each and every person to care enough to raise awareness about gender-based violence as well as to help those who are oppressed, so that one day they will be able to rise above the bitterness and norm set in the environment they live in.

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Story of Change: Gender and Peace Leadership

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This is Lyhour (21) who joined the Gender and Peace Leadership training. He shares his story of change.

I was born in a family which with very defined gender roles. My mother is the only woman, with me, my little brother, and my father. My father has always told my brother and I to act like “real men” and be masculine. I can’t deny that I picked up a lot from that. My little brother, though, who is just 13 years-old, has always been very feminine. He often acts like a girl and has embarrassed my father many times in front of his friends. This has been a really sensitive issue in my family, and even sometimes leading to violence. I have always tended to reprimand my little brother too. Not just because I’m worried that my father will punish him, but because I also kind of thought that he is strange and shouldn’t act like such a girl.

I learned a lot recently from a WPM training on gender and leadership. I always thought that gender is about girls and women. But gender is way more complex. Gender affects me and other men too. There are real expectations that men have because they are men. We also often see women in a certain way because of how we were raised. And it’s not just men and women, there are really so many gender identities that exist and make us all unique. I don’t know if my brother would rather be a girl. Or if he is gay. Or maybe he just wants to express himself in a different way than me and my dad think he should. At the training, I met some LGBT participants. They opened up my eyes. Identity is so complicated and thinking about only men and women is like thinking in black and white without color.

I’ve really put into practice what I learned from the training and from the other participants. I have focused on thinking about my own perceptions about gender and have challenged myself. I am working on supporting my brother to be who he is and express himself however he needs to. If he is LGBT I will support him too, even if my dad thinks he needs to be a certain way. I will stand beside him and keep encouraging him to be himself.

​It’s this kind of learning that really affects me. I go to so many workshops and learn concepts but this time it really hits home. How can I take this gender and non-violence work into my own home? I think there is a lot of opportunity and I’m thinking about it every day. I really do have a dream to see my community full of educated and open-minded people who are willing to learn and keep improving our society here in Cambodia. And I’m starting this right in my home and working towards a family that can accept each other and live without violence, even if we don’t necessarily agree with each other.

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Story of Change: Mrs. Then’s Reflection

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Luon Then, 52, is from the Toeuk Sap community of Prey Nup district, Kompong Som province. She is a child survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime whose father was killed and mother became mentally ill.

​Ms. Then grew up in a Khmer family holding traditional gender norms and values. In early the 1980s when she innocently told her mother of her having first period, her mother instantly forced her into practicing “Chol Ma-lup”, an old traditional practice of keeping the first-time menstruating girl isolated and inside. Her mom told she was now on the path of “fulfilling the duty” (Krup Chbap Kar) to get married at the age of 15 years-old. She was locked up in a small hut nearby the family’s house, where she had to sleep, eat, and relieve herself all in the same small space. Inside the hut, she was taught how to learn to sew, cut, and make cloth – the skills she needed to prepare for becoming a wife. “It was tough and uncomfortable living in that hut,” she says. Yet, she explains she had no choice and followed her mother’s orders.

On that last day of her confinement, there was a big celebration where she learned about her upcoming arranged marriage. This is how her life was planned and she continues to live with that to this day. Life in the 80s and 90s was about surviving. Though she did get used to her situation, she has faced a new type of repression in contemporary times: land conflict.

Growing up witnessing violence as a part of life, Ms. Then adopted an understandably reactive violent response to threats against her. “My experience at a young age shaped the way I have always behaved. I was a very unreasonable and nasty girl. Very reactive, usually in a violent way. I even fought an authority who threatened to stop me from building my house. I didn’t listen to any reason. Resorting to violence has always been a part of me.” Nonetheless, she continues, “lately, things seem to encourage me to rethink of my behavior after all the learning on active non-violence with WPM. It had been very beneficial for me since I started to apply some of these new things into my daily routine. I see myself changing now. At home, I’ve started to learn to control my anger and not just respond violently.” Ms. Then say she has started reflecting on her behavior and realizes that violence is a choice. She sees it now as something bad that brings negative impact on her and others around her.

By gradually practicing nonviolence, I notice that my life has changed,” she shares.  “Since I began to know how to calm myself down in time of crisis, I feel better. In my family there is no more throwing things and I stop fighting with my husband and stop myself from responding violently over any arguments. I keep calm and try not to argue with him when he is not in a normal state of mind, especially, when he’s drunk as he also become violent. I talk to him the next day instead. Such practice of nonviolence allows us as a family to feel more happiness. I just wish he  would stop drinking.”

Equipped with such knowledge, Ms. Then is now more confident to help prevent and address family conflict in her community, especially domestic violence cases. She adds, “I understand other and always step back and see how they are feeling. If I go there and they don’t seem to get my point, I have to be mindful and give them some space before I start a conversation once again. They do tend to listen to me when I try to understand them. In case of arguments, I first find way to prevent them from fighting and then try to talk to both sides to influence their view and help them see each other as friend again.”