domnak trayeung village, Dangkao district – Ask most of the little girls scattered around Domnak Trayeung what they want to be when they grow up, and they will tell you they aspire to be garment workers.
It’s what they know: Those whose mothers were lucky enough to find work nearby this dusty, isolated grid of concrete-box flats, purpose-built for relocating Phnom Penh’s many evictees, see them leave before 6 am every day for one of the clothes factories on the outskirts of the city.
But 12-year-old Vong Srey Nich? She wants to be a kickboxer. She wants to finish school, train hard, and fight on CTN, in Thailand and in Vietnam, and show “Teacher Ei” what she made of her life.
To most, Teacher Ei is actually Ei Phouthang, Cambodia’s most celebrated kickboxing champion. For the past two months, Mr Phouthang has been teaching children like Srey Nich kickboxing in a small community center and soup kitchen run by his wife, Saing Somaly, and using his considerable sway to address some of the problems facing the children along the way.
“Here, the kids like me and listen to me,” he said. “I tell them to go to school regularly, and it is very important that when they are free from helping their parents out they can spend their free time here boxing, kicking, performing, so they won’t have time to do drugs.”
As a former rubbish collector growing up in Koh Kong, Mr Phouthang says he can approach the children in a way that NGO workers, however well-meaning, can’t hope to.
“I understand their situation,” he said, shrugging.
On a recent visit to the center, it was clear the 25-odd children adored Mr Phouthang, barreling full-pelt into his legs and squealing as he played a makeshift game of basketball with them.
As well as steering the children toward education and away from drugs, Mr Phouthang and his wife want the center to provide a safe place they can run to if their parents abuse them. These kids, who are also Mr Phouthang’s neighbors–he and his family were themselves evicted from the Chamkar Mon district’s The Building three years ago and live two narrow blocks behind the center–are considered particularly vulnerable to domestic violence. They mostly work as rubbish collectors, and go to an NGO-run school if and when they can. Some beg at the tiny market. But in a community where everyone has been displaced, there is little extra cash for neighborly charity.
Relocation can be toxic for communities where poverty and alcohol abuse are already widespread, explained Kristy Fleming, International Program Manager of Childwise, the Australian child protection NGO funding the community center.
“Eviction and relocation puts an extra strain on families both emotionally and financially. When you’re moved one hour out of town, people who had jobs, now are too far away to commute. People who begged, now have nowhere to beg,” Ms Fleming said.
Ei Phouthang’s wife, Ms Somaly, said that not long after moving here, she noticed what seemed to her to be an unusual incidence of domestic violence in the community.
“It’s a bad situation with violence here. The fathers get drunk, and beat the kids and wife up every day,” she said. “When we moved here and saw the children living like this, we really wanted to help.”
What started out as ad-hoc lessons in kickboxing at Mr Phouthang’s house– and meals when the couple could afford it–turned into a structured program when Childwise approached them and offered to rent a small flat for the center and pay for a daily meal for the children.
Mr Phouthang, who even at 37 and past his fighting prime is an imposing figure, is tight-lipped on his own generosity and achievements. But he admits that when violence occurs in the village, he and Somaly provide a counseling service of sorts–an unstructured intervention that, anecdotally, is having a significant effect.
Ms Somaly explained that when husbands or fathers become violent, their wives and children seek refuge at the center, or, if it is shut for the night, the couple’s house. Meanwhile, Mr Phouthang goes out and talks, and listens, to the men.
“Every day we talk to the families and explain about violence and that they should stop because of the impact violence has on the family and the children,” Mr Phouthang said. “Most of the families are less violent than before.”
Domnak Trayeung villager Eim Tha, 40, said violence has noticeably decreased since Mr Phouthang started talking to their husbands.
“People in the village like him and listen to him. When they fight or something and he told them to stop, they listen to him,” Ms Tha said.
Srey Nich, speaking softly between a kickboxing demonstration and a bowl of vegetable soup and rice, said her father had regularly beaten her and her brother for years, but recently the abuse had tailed off. She didn’t know why– Ms Somaly explains that the children didn’t know Mr Phouthang speaks to their fathers.
“Those kids ran to my house when their father hit them [a few months ago],” Ms Somaly said. “I don’t see much violence here any more. It seems like he stopped beating up his kids since last month.”
The irony of teaching children to fight while helping them avoid other forms of violence is not lost on Long Salavorn, a veteran trainer and manager of Salavorn Boxing Club in Phnom Penh. But the discipline and respect one learns for one’s opponent is paramount to the sport, he explained.
“Boxers are violent only when they are in the ring, but not outside the ring,” he said. “It is a good idea that [Mr Phouthang] helps people with this. I will do it too if someone comes and contacts me.”
As much as anything, it seems Mr Phouthang is simply leading by example in a community where too many children have an abusive parent.
“He is a boxer, but he uses reason and good, polite language,” villager Ms Tha explained. “He has never beaten his kids, and he tries to stop others from beating kids up.”
Ms Somaly is herself a force to be reckoned with–as well as running the center daily she also works as a female kickboxing referee and coach–and together, the couple offers an example of how to work as a team, lovingly and equally, Ms Fleming says.
“As a role model for male-female relationships, they’re great–they have things in common, they work together and he listens to her.”
As Mr Phouthang talks, he absentmindedly touches his wife’s arm or her back, and takes unabashed pride in their relationship.
“We have been married now for 14 years. Wherever we go, we go together, like two birds that fly together,” Mr Phouthang said. “That’s how we see ourselves.”
Sakhoeurn Savady, deputy general director of the legal department at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, had not heard about the project. But she said she thought it was a great idea, and one that, with due diligence, the ministry might consider adopting in the future.
“We [at the ministry] have never thought about that before,” she said. “If we asked celebrities to do that, we would have to investigate their biography first.”
Cambodian celebrities have of course lent their names to causes before. Pop-star Preap Sovath narrated a 2007 MTV documentary on human trafficking, and actors Chea Samnang and Chorn Chanleakhena have walked on marches to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS.
Mr Sovath applauded Mr Phouthang and said celebrities have a duty to help the public when they can.
“It is a crucial work in the society,” Mr Sovath said. “Celebrity is the people’s person.
But Mr Phouthang’s hands-on–and time-committed–approach is beyond what most celebrities are capable of, Ms Fleming said.
“It’s pretty amazing what he’s doing. Using this fame, he has to help children keep safe and keep the whole community safe, every day, especially coming from such a masculine world,” she said
For Mr Phouthang the project has its own rewards.
“I want to teach the kids to be good people. If they get success, I don’t want anything from them but remembering it was Teacher Ei who taught me that,” he said. “This would make me very happy.”