The sun beats down with ferocity on Doris Dillon School in rural Kampot. It’s closing in on lunchtime, an hour when most school students grow restless and ready to bolt from their desks. But the girls in the “HerStory” classroom are absorbed, adding final details to paintings that use symbolic shapes and colors to convey a “landscape” of their current circumstances. They are bent over their work with great intensity and ownership, overseen by local mentors who stop to chat with or encourage them. This is not a room of your average shy or resigned girls, learning by rote, though. It’s a powerful room full of the future.
Philanthropist Kylie Schuyler, founder of California-based Global Girls Leading our World and a long-term supporter of education in Cambodia, along with WorldLit founder and literacy expert Pam Allyn, last year launched a new program, the HerStory Campaign, to help girls and young women grow into confident communicators, empowered with self-understanding and ready to take on more self-directed social roles. A key element to the project is a selection of mentors, Cambodian women who have been lucky enough to achieve their own dreams and goals, and now want to share that opportunity with rural girls.
(Logistical support for the mentorship program has been provided by World Assistance for Cambodia, an NGO founded by Bernard Krisher, the publisher of The Cambodia Daily.)
Social issues facing women in Cambodia are many, particularly in rural areas. They often lack school education, are vulnerable to violence, and seldom have the right to choose their own direction in life. The stunting of their future begins at a young age, as girls are often pressed into supporting family incomes rather than being allowed to attend school; long before they are even able to articulate their dreams, they are deprived of them.
The HerStory Campaign aims to help girls early on detect a sense of self, and find the words—written and spoken—to express their goals and identity.
HerStory is already underway in four rural pilot schools: Doris Dillon School (Kampot province), Kristof Family School (Prey Veng province), Kirivorn School (Koh Kong province), and Lotus School (Kandal province), and, in the Phnom Penh area, at the combined facilities of the Bright Future Kids Home and A New Life orphanage. At each, once a month for a week, mentors lead classrooms of girls—usually about 20 per session—in songs, greetings, reading aloud and art, activities that boost confidence and self-examination through personal narratives. These classes, known as LitClubs, end with the group sharing words of mutual positive reinforcement.
“Before joining I was always shy to talk to people, even classmates or my parents. I wasn’t a good student. But now, I study hard, feel brave, and can answer questions in class.”
Ly Poppin, one of the mentors at Doris Dillon School, is amazed at the transformation she has witnessed. “At first, the girls wondered why this strange class exists at their school,” she says. “We brought materials, snacks, and led group activities, all organized around giving girls a chance to share their own stories of what is happening to them right now. At first, they were shy and withdrawn, seldom answering anything even if they knew the answers. Lack of information and low motivation from families and friends left them unfocused and uninterested in thinking about their futures.”
Over time, Poppin has seen great development. “The girls gradually become less shy once they learn the habit of sharing stories. They grow in bravery to face problems, and they find trust and support with one another. This ultimately changes their outer and inner points of view.” Founder Schuyler has also witnessed the change. “The impact of dynamic mentoring and transformational literacy is igniting the power of girls in Cambodia. We are seeing true systemic change occurring as families and communities change in reaction to girls’ authentic voices,” she says.
16-year-old Pond Lika, a ninth-grader at Doris Dillon School, bears this out. “Before joining,” Lika says, “I was always shy to talk to people, even classmates or my parents. I wasn’t a good student. But now, I study hard, feel brave, and can answer questions in class,” Lika finds the positivity extends to her home. “I think I’m also more able to help my parents now,” she says.
Much like in world-famous international girls’ organizations—the Brownies, Girl Scouts, and Girl Talk—HerStory offers Cambodian girls a sense of safety and belonging, a chance to be listened to and taken seriously. HerStory believes that being able to express desires is the basis for social change.
At Doris Dillon, the girls are laughing together, collecting up their painting supplies and preparing to head home for lunch. They are all smiles as they sing a song reaffirming their acceptance of one another, and one senses they will bring that joy back home with them. Doris Dillon principal Mey Choeurn agrees. “Parents who had thought to send their girls to factory jobs this year actually decided to instead send them to this program. It has changed not just the students, but also the older generation’s attitudes toward their girls,” she says.
HerStory currently serves 26 countries around the world, engaging 52 partner organizations.
For information on how to help or donate to HerStory, please contact Kylie Schuyler at herstorycampaign.org