Seattle Chapter Co-Chair

As one of 12 delegates on a human rights delegation through Global Youth Connect, and as a Khmer (Cambodian) American woman, I learned about various issues of human rights violations in Cambodia. Cambodia has been plagued by a history of war such as the infamous genocide of the Khmer Rouge Regime from 1975 to 1979, where approximately 2 to 5 million people were killed and continuous civil wars occurred due to the Vietnamese occupation after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. During the occupation, the United Nations started a peacekeeping operation towards building a democratic institution and promoting respect for fundamental human rights. Presently, Cambodia has only had peace from war for about five years.

Despite peace, Cambodia still faces many forms of human rights violations such as political violence, intimidation of opposition party members, a weak judiciary system, restriction on the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, conflicts over land and resource rights, human trafficking and widespread impunity on human rights offenders. With all these, I wonder what prevents Khmers from becoming hopeless and collapsing into despair. Who ensures the protection of their human rights? These were the questions I asked myself repeatedly. I felt that I did not just inherit the tragic history of Cambodia but also the duty to join the struggle and fight for human rights and justice — for what was taken away from my family and the Khmer people.

The peacekeeping operation of the United Nations created hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cambodia to assist people in human services and prevention of human rights violation. For five weeks, from June 27 to July 24, 2005, I volunteered for two NGOs, the Cambodia Volunteers for Community Development (CVCD) and the Cambodian Labor Organization (CLO). CVCD aims to reduce poverty within communities through education and volunteerism, by offering disadvantaged citizens the opportunities to co-operate in their community development. This is achieved by offering literacy and vocational skill training as well as health and environmental education in return for their involvement in community projects. I assisted by teaching English to young students ranging from beginners to intermediate levels. CVCD makes it possible for economically disadvantaged students to afford an English Language education.

CLO is the only Cambodian NGO focusing exclusively on worker’s rights; they train workers and union members in labor rights. They also investigate and monitor violations of worker’s rights. While I volunteered for CLO, we interviewed union leaders, garment, construction, sex, and service workers. One of the biggest challenges of CLO is enforcing labor laws due to the lack of support from the judiciary system. Despite this challenge, the organizers are determined and courageous in continuing to fight for justice for worker’s rights.

NGOs are vital to Cambodia in protecting their fundamental human rights by providing a venue to fight for justice and make improvements in their lives. Unfortunately, one of the factors in keeping NGOs such as CVCD and CLO from moving forward is funding. Without it the organization cannot follow through with its mission or grow to improve the lives of the Khmer people.

At the end of my delegation I learned a lot about violations of human rights, especially against women, but I felt I needed to do more than educate myself. I co-founded a project called Women for Women with Veasna Nhean, a native Cambodian. Most young women are limited to working in garment factories, in restaurants as beer girls, as prostitutes, or domestic workers. The women for women project specifically cater to young women from a disadvantaged background in providing access to education and improving their future through better employment opportunities. This project provides a stipend to the participant while they train in sewing and work to make handicrafts, such as purses, handbags, pillowcases, etc. By working in our sewing co-op they are able to make an income and afford the expense of their education. This is a project that is part of an NGO called Khmer Student Association (KSA). KSA felt in order to make good changes in Cambodia it is important to educate and train young people to become future leaders.

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