I’m in Cambodia this week getting to know the women of the Cambodian Young Women’s Empowerment Network (CYWEN) and their work around equipping young women with the confidence, information and skills needed to increase their participation in decision-making from the household to the legislature. CYWEN Chair, Chan Kunthea, says of the network: “We want to break the culture of silence in Cambodia, where young people are afraid to speak up. Memories of the time of Khmer Rouge are still with us so it is difficult for us to voice our needs and demand rights. Young women in particular are lacking the confidence to engage in politics, or even to speak up at home. We want to change this.”
CYWEN was launched in 2010 following JASS Southeast Asia’s first national-level workshop in Phnom Penh in November 2009. Since then, its 30 members have launched a strategy to strengthen young women’s political participation. They’re targeting high school and university students in Phnom Penh and the provinces by holding roundtable discussions on key issues for Cambodian women, including rape, migration, access to education, and maternal mortality. Beginning with open discussions to build women’s confidence and information, CYWEN members will support students to engage in joint action to educate others about these issues (e.g. through school campaigns), and to use social media tools like Facebook for greater reach. Media outreach is a key strategy of the group, whose members’ voices are featured on a radio talk show on gender-based violence. They already have plans for a new radio show highlighting young women’s voices and perspectives to raise public awareness, and they are in the process of launching a blog.
The CYWEN core team is made up of young women activists from different local NGOs who volunteer their evenings and weekends to get the network’s activities off the ground. “CYWEN members are committed to this initiative not because they are getting paid for it,” says Kunthea, “but because they care about the future of Cambodia. It comes from the heart” If the key to Cambodia’s future is equipping the next generation, who make up 70% of the population, with the confidence and tools to engage in decisions that affect their lives, then I’d say these young women are leading the way.