Photo: Niamh Cooney at home in Baylin.
A “gut feeling” first brought Niamh Cooney from Baylin to Cambodia where she fell in love with the place and the people. Now, she wants to make a real difference to its future via a new organisation – SAME-CAMBODIA – which she currently securing charitable status for – its aim is to end gender inequality and gender-based violence through an innovative education programme she has developed for young people.
Having studied human rights in NUIG, she decided to travel to the largely rural Southeast Asian country for three months back in 2016 but ended up staying for four years.
“I woke up one day, I had Cambodia in my head, and decided to research it, really loved what I saw, and wanted to give it a go. I just had this feeling that I should be there and I found a project that I really liked, working on a child hygiene programme and off I went.
“I was supposed to stay for three months but I completely fell in love with the people and the place and just everything they had to give so I decided to cancel my flight and stay four years,” she laughs from her family kitchen last week.
For many, unfortunately, Cambodia is still very much associated with its violent past from the reign of Khmer Rouge in the 1970s when at least two million Cambodians were killed or died, a tragedy that the country continues to suffer from. Violence is an issue that affects 50% of all households in Cambodia, Niamh explains, and gender-based violence, oppression against women, and trafficking are huge problems in an impoverished country where most live on less than three dollars a day. Slave labour in garment factories is also a massive issue.
An incident on a trip to the lakes three months after she arrived had a profound effect on her and sowed the seed for the idea for her new organisation, details of which she firmed up during the lockdown.
Niamh takes up the story: “I went on a trip on the lakes and there was a woman there offered me her child to buy for 15 dollars. She almost begged me to buy the child for 15 dollars. I was sure I had misunderstood because she asked me in Khmer, but my friend who was with me speaks fluently, and he said she asked you to do that. So immediately on that day, I wanted to know why someone could offer their child like that, and I wanted to do something about it.”
From there, Niamh, whose parents are John and Anne and she has one brother John David in Munich, and two sisters Aoife and Rachel in New York, set about educating herself and learning more about the country, its norms, its history. Taking up a job in a school she found the children diligent, caring, and willing to learn and saw they could make the change.
In her latest post in SHINE, an international school in Siem Reap, where classes are taught through English, she was asked to write the curriculum for that year for kids between 12 to 16. At her request, Niamh was given permission to include a class on gender equality.
While the country is around 95% Buddhist, there is a lot of government control, she says, and a proposed new law to ban men going shirtless and women from wearing anything “too short or too revealing” because they want them to respect the culture is a big concern to a lot of groups.
Niamh also discovered that there are gender rule books for each sex taught in schools in Cambodia and she believes gender inequality is the root cause of much of the violence.
“You have one for girls and they tell how to behave to be a good girl. Your skirt should touch your ankles, if your husband hits you, you don’t talk back, you accept it. You don’t talk about what goes in the home outside the home, all of these things. These are your duties – you have to be at home, you have to take care of the kids, do the dishes, the list is endless.
“For boys, it’s about strength, power, and control. This isn’t spoken about publicly, you wouldn’t know this as a tourist, it’s something I learned through research,” she explains.
Having developed the gender equality programme, the 28-year-old monitored it, giving the kids a survey before to see what their views were, what they thought the rules and norms were. She says it was incredible over the nine or ten months of the academic year how much views had changed in the final survey.
“I was very careful not to force them to think anything, I just gave them the facts and that was it. I just challenged them a bit, I’d ask them is this a boy’s job, is this a girl’s job, things like that and show them a different perspective.
“It covers human rights too, really going through the UN declaration of human rights so I didn’t want to be too specific and kept it simple. We talked about equality in general, social equality, racial equality, and then gender equality,” Niamh explains.
The success of that programme has spurred her on to make it available in all schools, rural and international via a new organisation SAME-CAMBODIA.
She hopes to return to Cambodia in November with charitable status and register it as an association over there and then start talking to schools. She’d like to reach four schools a week, that’s about 120 kids.
Asked if she expects pushback from the authorities, Niamh is undaunted. “I would expect pushback if I didn’t know to be so careful with my words. It’s very important that I don’t step where I’m not supposed to be, and I don’t say words like change culture, new, any of those things.
“At the end of the day, the information we are giving is universal, it’s not anti-anything so as long as we stick with that. There’s possibly going to be some pushback but it’s more important that we do this,” she vowed, saying in future she wants to see the programme which covers subjects likehealthy relationships, safe touch, self defence, run by Cambodians.
“So once SAME-CAMBODIA develops, hopefully in a very safe way that the Cambodians will be happy to take it over. We just want to keep everyone safe and make sure it’s effective, relatable and relevant, and very respectful of the culture and the people. We would never try to change thoughts or force opinions on anyone or anybody. We just want to open the discussion and allow them to make opinions for themselves.”
Asked her ultimate aim for SAME CAMBODIA, Niamh quickly replies to “end gender inequality” and while she admits it is a big wish, in her experience many people want to be involved and want change.
Niamh has launched a fundraising campaign to enable her to carry on her work.
“We’re looking for €10 a month from people or whatever they can give. If they can give every month to make the programme consistent that’s really what we need and that’s what we can ask for.
“People in a position to make a bigger donation, if you donate €250 with the tax implications it becomes more,” Niamh explains.
She thanked her local trustees Brendan Doyle, Martina Keogh, Ethel Gavin and Catherine Gallagher for all their help setting up the new organisation which she hopes will gain charitable status in the coming months.
Niamh says: “I guess the most important thing for me is that people understand that we’re not a Western group going over there, I’ve been there, I understand and I care.
“I have a very strong team behind me who have the expertise and knowledge on this to make it extremely effective. So experience plus education – it’s a strong programme, I really believe in it. I know that it is going to work. I will not disrespect anybody in this process, hopefully.
As she works on finalising her programmes covering before heading back, a smiling Niamh lights up as she looks forward to her return: “I can’t wait, I’m homesick to be there. I love to be home but I feel my place is very much to be there”.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or check out SAME-CAMBODIA on Facebook. The name comes from a popular phrase in Cambodia.