From droughts and floods to road crashes and lightning strikes, when disaster happens in Cambodia, it is women and children who bear the brunt.
Two teenagers have this week travelled to Switzerland to address the United Nations, and present their ideas about to reduce disaster risk.
The pair were selected to attend the Geneva conference, hosted by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, by Plan International Cambodia, a youth empowerment NGO.
“Only children can tell adults about their [own] suffering,” said one of the two, named Hengmeang, 17, in a statement. “Many children are very vulnerable.”
He, along with Sophoeurn, 18, and six other young delegates invited to attend, will address the conference at the Resilient Future We Want event, which is being organised by Plan International as well as other international NGOs
Save the Children, World Vision and UNICEF.
The NGO has withheld their full names in line with their child protection policy.
Mom Chantara Soleil, Communications Manager of Plan, said children are particularly important in the disaster-risk reduction discussion due to their increased likelihood of falling victim to disaster.
“Based on our experience, children and women are the most vulnerable groups during disasters,” said Soleil, who added that droughts and floods were the two most common disasters facing Cambodian communities, followed by vehicle accidents and lightning strikes.
“So we started our risk reduction work by building the capacity of the children and women to assess the risks and mitigate the risks.”
Soleil said that both youths came to the attention of the NGO through their active roles in the organisation’s youth programs.
“We identify those who are the best and know the issues very well.”
Sophoeurn had attracted their attention by her work in his home village in Siem Reap province, where she introduced a charity collection box to raise money for road accident victims.
“It was a very new idea to the area, but now the charity box has become a budget for students who cannot afford uniforms and school materials,” Soleil said.
“The participation of children and young people in disaster-risk reduction is very important as children can be leaders or decision-makers to contribute to development in their own communities now and in the future,” Sophoeurn said.
Hengmeang, meanwhile, is a leader of the Child Advocacy network and a member of the Young Council Cambodia in Kampong Cham.
According to Soleil, involving youth voices in community planning is valuable for everyone.
“They are more creative than adults. Adults think more about money and incentive, but children want to learn experience.”
Soleil said this has created a situation where knowledge comes from children.
“Right now the children got educated, they educate other children, and the children educate the adults.”
In a culture where children are expected to not question their parents wisdom, Soleil said this is a major step.
“Before, in the context of Cambodian society, parents did not value children’s participation in activities. But adults are starting to accept this.”
Sophoeurn’s mother, Noy Tum, said in a statement that her daughter’s participation in discussing disaster-risk reduction at the Geneva conference made her proud.
“I am a farmer from a remote area. Sophoeurn is my daughter and she is just a girl, but she can share her knowledge with other children around the world. I am a mother, who had less opportunity for a good education.”
The teenagers arrived at the conference on May 19 and will stay until May 22.