My Take the Lead project focused on raising awareness about reproductive health and promoting the concept of gender equality to university students through a seminar at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. The seminar was held on May 21, and there were 16 participants around the ages of 18 or older. My initial goal was to conduct a seminar in a high school and to invite a guest speaker from RHAC, Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia, to speak with the students. Since sexual education is not fully integrated in the curriculum and the topic is still a taboo in our society, it was unrealistic to execute it within the time frame I was given because I would’ve had to gather permission from parents and high-ranking officials. However, that didn’t stop me from wanting to spread awareness about reproductive health to Cambodian youth.
The purpose of my project was to encourage young Cambodian adults to converse and talk openly about STDs and preventative methods with their peers. A majority of Cambodian students don’t have access to this information in high school because it’s not integrated into their curriculum. That’s why some university students don’t even know what STDs stand for. It’s quite alarming! In addition, although some sexual health education has been a part of the school curriculum since 1998, the teachers either skip the subject or touch briefly on general health. The subject of sexual health education is a taboo in Cambodia, but if young adults don’t know what to protect themselves from it’s very dangerous.
It took me two months to execute my Take the Lead Project, and I spent a week in preparing for the presentation and games for the seminar given to university students. The seminar went from 8:45-11:00 a.m. I presented types of STDs and my other friend Sinet Kroch presented preventative methods and the importance of having an open conversation with our peers. It was not a surprise to see that less than half of the audience didn’t know what STDs stand for. After the presentations, we had a discussion on the role that parents and the schools could play in distributing this information to young Cambodian teens. We all came to an agreement that the schools and parents have the responsibility in discussing this topic with their children and students. We as a society need to overcome this cultural barrier and have an honest conversation with our children. We ended our seminar with a talk by nurse Melania Treadgold on the relationship between gender equality and reproductive health. She called in as a guest speaker via Skype and explained that men and women have the right to make decisions for their own body and in their relationships.
I’ve learned so much from this project. The most important lesson that I will definitely carry with me the rest of my life is not to settle when faced with challenges but to keep going. As mentioned above, even though I wasn’t able to achieve my initial goal of educating high school students about the awareness of STDs and reproductive health I didn’t give up. Instead, I created even more backup plans. It’s so important to have backup plans because it’s normal that things might not go as planned. This challenged me to be even more creative with my project and to seek out other possible ways that I could get this important message across. In addition, another very important lesson I can take away from this project is to be patient and not be outrageous when people disagree with my opinion. I was frustrated when other perspectives didn’t align with mine when it came to whether or not youth should talk about reproductive health. However, this project taught me to be patient and open to other people’s viewpoints instead of getting angry and being close-minded.
Thanks to my project, I was able to participate in projects similar with the Peace Corps and even got permission from my Student Affairs counselor to start a Health Club at my university. Our SHE-CAN tutor Caitlyn McElroy recommended I join Camp STAR, which is organized by Peace Corps volunteers in the Prey Veng Province, to do a presentation on gender equality and reproductive health for the high school students in that province on June 23. My friend Sinet Kroch and I covered topics such as different types of STDs, preventative methods, safe sex and family planning. In addition, we completed an activity with the students to show how quickly STDs can spread. Honestly, we didn’t expect that students would take these topics seriously, however it turned out they were so engaged and asked many good questions. After our presentation, we were able to share about our experience in the SHE-CAN program with the students. I see their potential and hope they will pass the information we presented to their own friends.
Overall, this project has taught me so much about who I really am and how I choose to act when faced with challenges. In fact, for the first time in my life, I honestly believe that my goal in becoming a human rights advocate has begun!