Inspiring youths: the story of Baan Chantha
The road is windy and lined with palm trees on the way to Baan Chantha’s house where she lives with her mother and five siblings in Preah Sdach commune, Prey Veng province. Baan Chantha is 17 years old, and comes from a family of farmers.
“I used to live in hardship because my parents drank alcohol, and always had conflicts. When they had fights, all the villagers would hear it,” she says when asked about her past life. Her father drank too much and developed a serious mental disorder. As a result, he passed away in 2015, leaving behind a huge amount of debt that overwhelmed the family.
Chantha’s mother, Eang Hun, took on two jobs as a construction worker and washing dishes to provide for her family and repay her late husband’s debts. This meant she was away from the family most of the time, leaving Chantha and her siblings to fend for themselves: “No one took care of me and my younger siblings. My second brother and I took care of our younger siblings and stayed at home to wash clothes, do the dishes, and feed the pigs, chickens and ducks. My brother dropped out of school to help find income for my family,” explained Chantha. Without school uniforms, study materials or food to eat, Chantha was embarrassed and afraid: afraid of the neighbours, and afraid of teachers raising their voices, which reminded her of her violent father. As a result, she would skip school and stay at home, and she often considered dropping out of school for good (which would also enable her to find a job to support her mother).
In 2016, with funding from the European Union, Save the Children and partner organization WOMEN began implementing four projects in Chantha’s district. The different projects aimed to promote children’s participation in local decision-making, empower children to advocate for change to their local governments, and strengthen children’s participation in social accountability for improving local services. As part of these projects, WOMEN coordinated with the Commune Councils for Women and Children to help create Children’s Clubs in each commune. The clubs are a way to build children’s capacity and strengthen their participation in civil society. When children are included in decision making processes they are treated as equal citizens, they can voice their issues, and they can be cared for better.
By luck, Chantha attended one of the project orientation meetings and was immediately interested in participating. Chantha supports the children in her community, and the club members love her and look up to her. As a result, she was elected Children’s Club leader. Through her new role, she received training on children rights and child participation at the commune level and with the authorities. As an encouragement to keep attending school, her and her brother also received a scholarship through the project: “I was very happy after becoming a Children’s Club leader. I am more courageous, and stronger than before. I went to school regularly to become a good student and I ranked number two [in my class].” Chantha’s mother speaks proudly of her daughter, "I am happy that my daughter is a good child, respectful, mature, brave, communicates well with the authorities, helps the children in the community, and helps to teach children near their homes to read and write. Even though I am poor, I am trying to support my child so she can have a good job, not like me.”
As a child representative, Chantha is responsible for implementing activities, leading monthly Children’s Club meetings, participating in Commune Council meetings and other monthly meetings with authorities, including commune investment planning. Through these activities, she is able to gather information from the children in her commune and raise their issues to the relevant authorities for them to find solutions and provide better care and support for children. One of the children in the Children’s Club said, “Sister Chantha is a good person, I like her because she helps me learn to write and read. I have stopped being shy among friends. The teachers have stopped blaming me. I am so happy. I give thanks to her for helping to teach me.”
Through her work as a Club leader, Chantha quickly learned valuable skills such as effective communication, planning, facilitation skills, report writing and leadership. She helped address crucial children issues in her community such as preventing violence against children, encouraging children to attend school, collecting resources to help disadvantaged children, obtaining birth certificates and teaching children about their rights.
The creation of the Children’s Clubs has helped raised awareness amongst children of their rights, but also showed the adults the value of considering children’s voices. Um Lach, the commune chief, says that he now sees the benefits of the child rights governance project. He previously did not pay attention to children’s issues. After attending the trainings by WOMEN, he understood the value of giving children a voice in society. “I believe in the words of children who report [their issues] because they are not able to tell a lie […] Children are now developing quickly – they are very valuable and useful and we must pay attention to all their concerns,” he explained.
Chantha smiles when she is asked about her future and her dreams, “I am so happy because my family understands about my heart and I know the value of myself and other children. In the future, I want to be a doctor or a customs officer to earn a living. My family and children in my community have the human resources to contribute to the development of the country.”