After sicking it up all day yesterday (wheeee!) I was thrilled to roll out in our touristy bus this morning to go to Buddhism for Development in Battombong, Cambodia. After a lovely bumpy bus ride, we pulled into the grounds of the NGO and went into the conference room for the intros' de jur. Here we were, 15ish grad students and staff from the States, surrounded by a dozen or so older males telling us how they are making their country better. And they are. The work they are doing is empowering people to make their lives better, but here's the rub: there are NO women in leadership within the group that we saw. And when I had the audacity to exercise my feminist curiosity (thanks Dr. Dwyer and Cynthia Enloe!) and ask how many women were in leadership roles within the organization, the male in charge said, "Whew, you ask the tough questions!" Really? Because I'm pretty sure that the brochure you handed me, oh former monk, has a big entry about how you are 'empowering' women to engage with the local government. I love that you thought to include it in the brochure, but think that it's a 'tough' question when one asks why there are no women helping guide the organization. The answer, you ask? Because "there are so women educated enough in the provinces, and we would have to bring them in from Phnom Penh." When pressed more, the leaders explained that in Cambodian society women are not traditionally able to leave the home, and therefore there were no women qualified to be in leadership roles within the organization currently.
I certainly have NO right to roll into a foreign country and demand that they change the way that they are leading their organisation, but really, don't sell me a big shiny story about how you are empowering women and educating girls (through micro-scholarships of $.50 per diem for each day of school monthly) and then tell me that you couldn't scrounge up a few movers and shakers to sit on a leadership team. Also, I have met several women- several- that have risen from horrific pasts surviving the Khmer Rouge to step into leadership roles within their community. Again, I have no right to tell a group how to run, but it makes me SUPER sceptical when an organization says they are committed to empowering women thinks that I am challenging them when I ask where all the women are. Well, cue the chorus: "Because it's a patriarchal society!"
After our orientation to BFD, we split into two groups, one group went to see the NGO's Aids Home Care program. This has been my favorite part of the trip so far. We met with a mom who just lost her husband to Aids, and has a positive 7 year old and negative 10 year old. Another mom who lives next door to her is positive. The men go and sleep with prostitutes (about $2 US for local men) and then give HIV to their wives. Lots of fun. I was so moved by this woman and her children. All I could think of as we asked the kids what they hoped for was how abundantly blessed I am, and how much I wish I could change the way their lives are. We did what we could for them financially speaking, but for me the bigger thing that we did was just play with the kids and hang out and listen to the moms.
The afternoon was a powerful visit to see the NGO's scholarship recipients. I'll go into this more later, but for now, let me just express how moved I am by the women that I met today. The hope that they show in just the daily act of living is inspiring. I can't walk away saying, "oh, I'll never complain again, I have it so easy." I know I will go back to the States, and that life will have stress and challenges. But I do hope I can hold onto the feeling of shared humanity that washed over me today, and I hope that when I feel all hell is breaking lose (family plus finals, yea!!) I can go back to this day in my mind and draw on the hope and strength I saw in action today.