It was just four years ago, when the word “city” sounded so unfamiliar to me.
I was born 400 km away from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where I had lived most of my life. In 2015, I was given a scholarship for a bachelor’s degree in Social Work at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, thus beginning my long journey in an unknown and challenging place.
In this new city I was not in my comfort zone, but it is where I learned more about myself. During these four years, I’ve learned to overcome obstacles and fear, embrace my passion and explore my strengths and weaknesses.
In this time there was a transformative moment in my life, one that has changed my perceptions and opened my vision on what we can do to have better lives. In 2018, I was nominated by my University to be a member of the Adolescent and Youth Reference Group (AYRG) and then later elected to be its deputy leader.
AYRG was established by UNICEF in 2015 and is a partnership of 26 non-governmental organizations (NGO). Its sole purpose is to provide opportunities for adolescents and young people, including capacity building, a space where we can express our perspectives, joining policy dialogues and more.
Working alongside other young people, I have learned about many issues facing Cambodians, especially children. Child marriage is one of those challenges. In Cambodia, marriage is illegal without parental consent before the age of 18. From age 16-18, girls and boys can legally marry if they have parental approval. But nearly one in five (19%) girls aged 20-24 married before the age of 18 in 2014 (CDHS, 2014). Girls who marry early lose their right to a childhood, education and reaching their full potential. They suffer sexual and emotional violence. Their health and lives are at risk.
After I understood more clearly the causes and negative impacts of child marriage, my team and I started running the 16 Days to End Violence against Women and Girls to address child marriage.
In 2018, we ran the campaign in Ratanakiri province, which has the highest number of child marriages in Cambodia. We went to two schools and organized debates on the impact of child marriage and teen pregnancy to raise awareness on these issues. We also organized a Facebook live to raise awareness on child marriage and spread our messages. We chose Facebook because it is the most popular platform in Cambodia, with over 6.8 million users. We invited many guest speakers to discuss and reinforce our message on this topic.
Today, as I get ready to attend the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum on 8-9 April 2019, a platform for youth leaders from around the world to exchange ideas with each other and world leaders to advance the Agenda for Sustainable Development, I can’t help but be so excited to meet with many other youth leaders around the world. I am eager to hear what they are doing to address children marriage, how have they made progress in their countries on this issue and what they think about our team’s work. I believe we can learn about each other’s experiences and build each other up.
I am also very interested in discussing and learning about Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, quality education and SDG 5, gender equality. If we achieve these two goals we can end child marriage. When girls are treated equally they can go to school to learn and make a living for themselves- then no one can sell them to a marriage they don’t want. After I return from the ECOSOC Youth Forum, I plan to conduct a workshop with AYRG members to share the knowledge and useful information that can inform our work.
Over the past several years in university and participating in social work activities I feel very grateful for all the opportunities and challenges. It has made me become a growth mindset person and feel so positive to continue addressing social issues. As a young person, you cannot find your potential unless you step out of comfort zone. From my perspective, youth are one of the most powerful forces to make positive change in our communities, societies, and the world.
Manin Ath is a senior Social Work student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She is interning in child protection at UNICEF Cambodia and is the deputy leader of Adolescent and Youth Reference Group (AYRG). Her two main passions are travelling and politics.