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Howling up girl empowerment in Siem Reap

Peter Olszewski / Khmer Times Share:
Editor-in-Chief Hang Sokunthea and her new book titled ‘I Am a Daughter’. Supplied

While hordes of Siem Reap creatives have been crowding the highway to Phnom Penh, fleeing tourist-devoid economic meltdown, the traffic this weekend is heading the other way as a gaggle of the capital’s writerly types descend on Temple Town.

The posse of poets, which includes à-la-US rapper and spoken word dude Kosal Khiev, behatted musician-cum-poet Scott Bywater and long-time journalist, academic and author Luke Hunt, are hitting the town to perform at the Howl Word Jam 2021 at the Pomme bar and hostel on Saturday night.

A photo from the Girl Empowerment Project at Meta House, Phnom Penh. Supplied

They’ll be joined on the open mic stage by a gaggle of local word wranglers including pianist and Spitler School Foundation adviser Jim Latt, resident Canadian teacher, competitive cyclist and video maker Joss McDonald, Colours of Cambodia NGO operative and ardent wordsmith Martin Bradley, and Wayne McCallum aka mine host Dr Howl.

A highlight on the night will be the Siem Reap launch of the book I Am a Daughter, which was first launched last month, on January 25, in Phnom Penh.

The book, championing female empowerment, was published by Meta House and the Cambodian-German Cultural Association (KDKG) with funding provided by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation (Hanoi Office).

Meta House founder ‘Nico’ Mesterharm says: “We have circulated 1,000 copies of the book for free. Girl empowerment is one of our core topics. To educate girls to receive education before marriage is one of the most important lessons in this society.”

“We hope also to pave the ground for more female participation in politics or as economic leaders,” he adds.

The book itself was compiled and put together by women who have certainly empowered themselves.

The book’s cover photo is by the prolific and talented Mech Sereyrath, who exhibited a series of photos under the same title as the book at the Angkor Photo Festival in December 2019.

The book’s editor-in-chief is journalist and researcher Hang Sokunthea, an assistant dean of the Faculty of Communication and Media Arts at the Pannasastra University of Cambodia.

She started writing for her local newspaper as a student reporter when she was 13 and has written for several leading Cambodian publications.

She has a BA in Communication and Media Arts with a specialisation in mass media from Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia, and is the second-ever Cambodian journalist to be selected for Europe’s Eramus Mundus Journalism programme, allowing her to study for a joint Masters in Journalism, Media & Globalisation at Aarhus University, Denmark and City University London.

She returned from Europe in 2016 to “kick start” careers in journalism and teaching.

She began working on the project that led to this book in 2019 and says: “This book encompasses six topics which talk about issues most women have to go through in their life journey and how we of a new generation see them differently.”

“These range from education and marriage to gender-based codes of conduct, career and women in rural communities as opposed to the cities,” she adds.

The project behind this book began on December 8, 2017, with the premiere of a play titled I Am a Daughter, at Meta House in Phnom Penh.

The play, funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, was written by former television news presenter Kim Dyna and produced through the Turtle Club, which uses theatre to explore social issues.

In the 45-minute play, two actors, swapping gender roles, performed different roles, from husband and wife to a grandmother and granddaughter, and topics such as women’s rights, family disapproval and domestic violence were explored.

The script was then adapted for schools and in 2018, performances organised by the Cambodian-German Cultural Association, Meta House and Khmer Art Action were held in a series of high schools in Phnom Penh and the provinces.

On August 18, 2019, the Girl Empowerment Project was launched at Meta House. The five-month project consisted of performances of Kim Dyna’s play at schools, universities and learning centres, accompanied by testimonials and question and answer sessions.

A series of six panel discussions, moderated by Hang Sokunthea, was also initiated, with the final edition in December 2019 featuring three guest speakers: frisbee player Seng Socheata, general worker Van Phan and conflict and peace consultant Yim Sotheary.

The three women talked about moving from rural areas to the city. At the time Hang Sokunthea told Khmer Times: “Aside from only hearing stories of successful people, I would like the youth to also pay attention and listen to real issues faced by everyday people.”

The panel discussions were reinstated in 2020, with a further six discussions held and run live on Facebook because many people couldn’t attend the talks due to the pandemic. Sokunthea also brought in two of her female students who were also media workers to help run the panels.

While running these panels, Sokunthea was also asked to compile a book summating the essence of girl empowerment.

A scene from the 2017 play performance of ‘I Am a Daughter’. Supplied

“When the organiser approached me to be involved in this project – to develop content that empowered young females through education – I thought of the key words that are a part of the women NGO’s language,” Kunthea says.

“People here talk all the time about gender equality, ending harassment, gaining independence, but for normal females what does this all mean and how do you actually do that?”

“To be empowered, I believe, happens in daily activities and to show the young girls how they can get a start. Empowerment is not like a click to turn the light on or off, it happens through your daily decision making to develop your identity as a person,” she says.

“We are not encouraging young girls to think they need to be the icons in society to consider themselves empowered, but to learn to make those important decisions in life from other role models who have gone through those stages in career, education, and marriage,” she adds.


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