Let Girls Lead

 “Adolescent girls, if given the tools, the opportunities and the confidence to lead, can be powerful agents of social and political change.” -Plan International Australia, 2018

Every day around the world, girls are prevented from making decisions, raising their voices, and becoming leaders within their communities because of discriminatory social norms and limited access to resources. In Cambodia, despite making up 51% of the population, women face discrimination both socially and economically, and women remain underrepresented in politics. At Free To Shine we believe in the incredible potential of girls as leaders and change-makers. We envision a future Cambodia where we will no longer be needed as an organization—a Cambodia where educated girls, are free from sex trafficking, and have the power to shape and lead their communities and country. By facilitating girls’ access to education, skills, and increased self-confidence, Free To Shine is not only helping to improve the lives of individual girls, but also helping to propel this next generation of women leaders forward so that they, in turn, can make change happen on a larger scale.

Along the way, we have met some truly inspirational young women. One of these is 12-year-old *Kean, a girl on our program who, at the age of 11, started tutoring the children in her community in English after school every day in her own initiative. With the encouragement and support from her Free To Shine Education Officer, she began to hold weekly tutoring sessions at her home, drawing a crowd of other children from her village. We provided her with a whiteboard, pens, and some other basic materials to get her started. Our Education Officers continued to check in with her about the class and provided suggestions and guidance as needed. We have witnessed this girl develop newfound self-confidence, ownership, pride, and other important leadership skills that she would have been unlikely to develop without this project. Beautifully, it also allowed her to help other children in her village, creating a ripple effect of the support and benefits she was receiving from Free To Shine into her wider community. Even more so, Kean inspired us. She was not the only young change-maker in her community enrolled on our program and her example prompted the Free To Shine team to find a way to support all the other Keans in their dreams of bettering their communities.

In October 2018, Free To Shine received a grant from GoPhilanthropic to start the two-year Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) to support the dreams and growth of girls like Kean. The goal of the program was to bring together girls with outstanding leadership skills or potential and provide them with leadership training and ongoing mentorship to develop their skills and set them up with individual community projects so they could apply their skills in a practical, impactful way. Visionary, Mediator, Responsible, Courageous, Change Agent. These are just a few of the qualities Free To Shine Education Officers and Social Workers looked for in enrolling a girl onto the ELP. Once the girls have decided on and planned out their community projects, they are given the materials they will need to achieve their goal, such as library books, whiteboards, markers, gardening tools, and they paired with an Education Officer who will be their mentor for the duration of the project. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, they are given a network of support of 25 other like-minded courageous young women who are striving to bring positive change to their communities despite the many obstacles they face in their personal lives.

Last week 26 girls between the ages of 11 and 19 came to the office for the second of six workshops. The workshop series focuses on topics such as goal setting, project planning, time management, analyzing problems and using critical thinking, and managing stress and emotions. In the most recent workshop Education Officers facilitated discussions about time management and the importance of setting SMART (Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) goals. The participants gave impassioned presentations about their plans for the individual community projects, which include creating community libraries, starting a tutoring program for children in the community, creating a community garden for the benefit of low-income families, and educating community members about hygiene and proper rubbish disposal. At the end of the workshop, Sreymom, Free To Shine’s Program Officer, led a meditation session, coaching participants on positive visualization and mantra techniques for stress release.