“One of the topics we will discuss today is consensual relationships,” teacher Kahna announced to her tenth graders, who seemed ready and eager to learn. This happened during my first week interning with Caring for Cambodia (CFC) at their school located on the outskirts of Siemreap city, Cambodia. I sat in the classrooms and learned about the topics covered in the CFC Gender Equity Program. A consensual relationship refers to any romantic, physically intimate, or sexual relationship to which the parties consent or consented. This definition also includes marriage.
I was born in 1991 to a low-income family in a small village in Battambang province, Cambodia. I was a child directly impacted by domestic violence, war trauma, and poverty. I went to a public school and joined the childcare and the circus programs offered by Phare Poleu Selpak Association. In other words, I am someone who benefitted from a non-profit organization’s effort to bring about positive changes. My story and my college major in Women and Gender Studies are the main reasons that drew me to apply for an internship with the CFC Gender Equity program.
I was amazed to witness such an advanced Gender Equity curriculum being now taught in a public school, something that was not imaginable when I was in school. As a woman growing up in a small village in Cambodia, I was forbidden to date. I had never openly discussed any topics related to romantic or physical relationships, let alone learned about consensual relationships in a classroom. The consensual relationship is one example of the selected topics offered by the CFC Gender Equity Program to its junior high and high school students. The teachers and Gender Equity team put a great deal of effort into creating and updating the lesson plans, ensuring that the curriculum is up to date with the national Women and Gender Study curriculum set out by the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports.
After my first week of learning in the classrooms and assisting the teachers, it was time to study the updated curricula created by the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports while also beginning my research project on Gender Equity programs in Cambodia. I found that my country had significantly changed its curriculum to beginning to include a more open discussion of the impacts of gender discrimination and a more inclusive topic related to sexual health, as well as of the impacts of domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and self-advocacy, just to name a few. These topics were summarily covered during my time in high school.
Although I was amazed to witness such an advanced Gender Equity curriculum being taught in a public school, I know that work still needs to be done in Cambodia to achieve gender equality. Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Post newspapers, published in March 2022, listed “social norms” as the top barrier restricting girls and women from fully exercising their rights and discovering their potential selves. That is why I must emphasize that the CFC Gender Equity program’s work is an essential contribution to a more equal society for the younger Cambodian generation.
So, my job was to undertake in-depth research comparing the different resources available in Cambodia and to use my knowledge as a U.S. college student in the Women and Gender Study field to offer suggestions for updates. My final work came down to two projects; for the Gender Equity team, I proposed 19 pages of suggestions that could expand lessons for students in the 7th, 8th, and 10th grades. Each grade had three sections relating to the Study of Women and Gender. I also spent about 20 percent of my time with the Career Preparation Team, in which I compiled information explaining U.S. school systems, possible scholarship opportunities, and how to prepare oneself for college in the U.S.
Looking back on my experience with CFC, I enjoyed working in the Gender Equity room on-site on one of CFC’s campuses. I also appreciated the freedom of working remotely on some afternoons when I could sit in an air-conditioned coffee shop while enjoying a cup of iced latte. I am thankful for my experience with CFC, as it offered me a chance to learn about working in a very different system compared to my previous job as a circus artist in Cambodia. This was before I left Cambodia in 2016 to pursue a college education in the U.S. This experience was also very different from my previous internship experiences with non-profit organizations in the U.S. (in 2019 and 2021). This opportunity to intern with the CFC Gender Equity team was indeed unique and satisfying. I hope that the recommendations I left for will turn out to be helpful. Altogether, I spent eight challenging and enjoyable weeks with the Gender Equity and Career Preparation teams, working closely to support the staff of these two programs while learning from their experiences and the challenges they faced during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Having now returned to the U.S. to complete my undergraduate studies, I find myself holding inspirational memories of the teachers and the students in the classrooms, their smiles when I shared the story of my life journey with them from being a poor child to becoming a circus star and now, a senior at Smith College. It was truly a unique 8-week experience that I will continue to cherish as I keep exploring my career path. Heartfelt thanks to the CFC team for giving me this working opportunity, supporting me when I struggled and trusting in my ability to accomplish the tasks assigned to me.