Riding for Rights: A Reflection
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh city, but for a different reason to the travelers or business people, we were there for a cause; to raise money for an issue cause very close to my heart.
As someone who is half Thai, I am familiar with the plight of women in South East. Drawing attention to women’s empowerment is extremely important to me, which is why I chose to undertake a grueling (at best) 400km cycling challenge from Vietnam to Cambodia. I was riding on behalf of United Nations Women – the Australian National Committee for UN Women.
We were sweaty within a minute of stepping out of the terminal doors. The engulfing waft of the fumes, food and humidity washed over us, and we knew we were in for a tough ride. First of all, before I left Australia for the awareness bike ride, the longest distance I’d ever ridden was 25km. So, it’s safe to say I was severely under-prepared for the journey I was about to take. Riding up to 80km a day in 38-degree heat and humidity seemed an impossible feat even WITH training.
As a team of 26, we cycled to raise funds for vital women’s social and financial empowerment programs in Vietnam & Cambodia. To see where our money was going (we raised $129,000), we visited sites along the Mekong Delta and The UN Women office in Cambodia that gave us insight into the impact it had on the people’s who’s lives had momentarily intersected with ours. This ride was a mere token of the funds used to help women without a voice. From gender-based violence prevention, climate change sustainability planning and other financial empowerment programs run in partnership with the UN Women, there is significant work underway to raise the profile of women in Vietnamese & Cambodian cultures.
These ladies were paid roughly $3 USD a day to make something you can buy in a homeware store for a lot more
We’re incredibly lucky in Australia, however when comparing our sunburnt country to Vietnam and Cambodia, some might be surprised that there are many similarities in female inequalities. How does Cambodia compare to a country such as ours where women are still unrepresented in government and senior management roles? Where are our active plans to promote women and ensure adequate representation in public and private sector decision-making processes?
Cambodia & Vietnam have had some of the highest numbers of elected females in their National Assembly (22+ %) within the Asia Pacific; alarmingly, however, this number is decreasing. In Australia, we have only 30.5%. Another staggering figure, 1 in 3 will experience some form of domestic violence in Australia and on average one woman dies a week from Gender Based Violence. In Vietnam, it’s 58% of women (as of 2010) and in Cambodia, it is 1 in 5 (as of 2015). These figures show us the pertinence for programs to prevent and combat Gender Based Violence not only in Asia but on our own turf too.
Some school girls who joined us on our ride…
The Ride for Rights trip was an incredible learning experience for myself and my teammates of the harsh realities of “less developed countries”. Overwhelming gratitude that is what we felt. Grateful that we can afford to do the trip be fed and have supportive families and partners at home cheering us on. We are not expected to put up and shut up; we are not expected to marry and settle down and do all the housework (though debatable I’m sure). We do not need to abide by strict cultural norms. Sometimes it is overlooked, but we are incredibly privileged, and I believe that the foundations of this stem from a myriad of factors – but mostly family and education.
I was also fortunate enough to visit some projects run by the Cambodians Children Trust, who my family has worked closely with since they started. You might remember the Australian Story from a few years ago. In summary, Tara Winkler came to Battambang province in Cambodia to volunteer at an orphanage and after some significantly life changing events – she ended up running it. CCT has now significantly evolved from that. What I learned was that most children in orphanages have families, but their families cannot afford to feed them, wash them & educated them. Thus, they place their children in orphanages. Unfortunately, not all the people running orphanages are good people, and as you can imagine there are significant issues regarding child sexual abuse and child violence. CCT aims to rehome children with their families while providing a safe space (a Youth Centre) to eat, wash clothes, have showers, have medical check ups and they also provide supplementary education. With roughly 70% of the population of Cambodia under the age of 22, there are not enough schools for children, so they have to do two sittings – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The fact that they can keep most poorer families together by relieving the heavy burden of providing for their children is an inspirational achievement. Hopefully, this successful model is scalable.
The CCT Youth Centre
This trip wasn’t just cycling and site visits though it felt like it! We also visited some tourist ‘attractions’ – such as the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and Prison, one of the many prisons which existed at the time of the Khmer Rouge. If you want to read more about the absolute horrors and atrocities that happened under the Pol Pot regime, I will encourage you to research it further. First They Killed My Father is an excellent book, and Angelina Jolie was filming it for Netflix two weeks before I was there. The fact that an estimated 3 million of the 8 million Cambodian population were killed at the hands of this brutal and ideological time in the 1970s is utterly incomprehensible.
The people of Cambodia and Vietnam are a true representation of strength and optimism. Despite such a terrible past, they welcomed us with open arms. It was rare to cycle a couple of hundred meters without young kids running out and yelling ‘Hello!’, which of course would be met with a smile, greeting, and wave. The generous hospitality we experienced from people living in extreme rural conditions was completely overwhelming.
Yours truly at Angkor Wat
After speaking directly with those in the communities and some incredibly inspiring youth activists, I know that the change is us – the next generation. New ideas, an evolved mindset and empowerment and freedom through education are some of the keys to unlock a better future. I know it’s cliché but after seeing only a fraction of the struggle that we see women facing I’m truly inspired to continue to make a change in any way I can.