by Juliana Cano Nieto
The last Isis International Activist School focused on Women Human Rights Defenders, what are these activists up to four months later?
You Sotheary, 23, still faces problems when she travels on her own to do community organizing in Cambodia. “My family says I shouldn’t go because women going out alone is not part of our culture or tradition ... People think that I am trying to do something bad with the communities and do not believe in my work.” Instead of stopping her work, these comments make Theary, as her friends call her, more determined to work for women’s rights.
Theary became a rights defender in her college years. She began to raise awareness in the countryside on climate change and human rights, and then worked with survivors of gender-based violence. She told Isis International, “I began this project with an American researcher looking at survivors of gender based violence under Khmer Rouge, to share the ideas and opinions of victims.” This made her realize the importance of sharing the voices of women rights defenders.
Her goal is clear: "Raising public awareness on women human rights defenders' issues in Cambodia so that when they work or advocate for their rights, the community and authorities will be more understanding and tolerant of the work they are doing." She hopes that this project will contribute in motivating and encouraging women to participate in social development and human rights work.
To do this Theary created a website, Life of Women Human Rights Defenders, where she posts the interviews with these women. She explains, “I decided to put it online because I can engage younger generations. They will be able to access it and learn about it. Also, people around the world can see it.” Despite her efforts, Theary continues to face challenges in her project. “I need more resources to run this project. I didn't think I needed money for this project, but then I realized I needed to pay to put it on the website and pay for a web administrator. I also needed better video and audio skills that I don’t have.” Theary is still committed to getting more voices out there and secured some money to interview five more women, but she wants to make that 20-25 so continues to look for support.
The Activist School inspired Theary to include other women’s rights defenders into her work. “I’ve met women working with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people before, but I never include them in my project. After the Activist School I understood that LGBT people experience violations themselves in their communities. Communities don’t accept them and their freedom of choice is limited by family and community. It’s also difficult for them to speak out because no one wants to hear their voice. I opened my heart to include LGBT in my project.”
Theary joined the Activist School because she wanted to learn from other activists and better understand feminism. She also wanted an opportunity to reflect on her strengths and weaknesses as an activist. Both were achieved. “I learnt what feminism meant and then translated this into what it would mean in my own language. When we try to empower women we don’t use a good voice; we don’t use right words. I learnt about feminist language and incorporated it into my own language.” She added, “before the Activist School I thought it was not important when they asked me if I was a feminist or an activist. Now I can say that I am a feminist.”
Overall, the Activist School had a very positive impact on Theary. “It inspired me to continue my work because the problems I face happen in all of Asia. If we collaborate and build a network we can try to end the problems together. I have a bigger commitment than I did before.”
Juliana Cano Nieto is currently volunteering with Isis International. She is a human rights activist, feminist, and wanderer.