In Cambodia, empowering youth is a force for change

August 12, 2021

Ouk Sovandane, 19, is a sophomore majoring in banking at the Regional Polytechnic Techo Sen Institute, located in Sangkat Kraing Ampil, in Cambodia’s Kampot Province.

Growing up, Sovandane didn’t have the confidence to engage much with her community. She says she didn’t give a lot of thought to improving her community or being civically engaged because she saw it as the responsibility of the government, not of local youth like her. She planned to study, find a job and live her life.

“I was a person who lacked confidence in public speaking. When delivering my ideas to an unfamiliar group of people, I found it hard to express my thoughts,” Sovandane says.   

Youth under the age of 30 make up about 65% of Cambodia’s population, according to UNDP. While many of the country’s young people may think like Sovandane did, youth can be an important force for driving socio-economic development. They represent an important voice in addressing critical issues with decision makers and can influence processes that lead to wide-reaching policy decisions. That is, if youth have the confidence to use that voice.

Empowering young people – especially young women entrepreneurs – is a key goal of the Women Entrepreneurs Act project, or WE Act. Led by Pact and funded by USAID, WE Act is helping young women gain the skills, knowledge and resources they need to reach their full potential. With a focus on urban-based micro, small and medium businesses owned by women ages 18 to 30, the effort is addressing key challenges to their businesses through capacity development, network expansion, information sharing, access to finance and markets and more. WE Act is also working to reduce economic gender barriers in Cambodia and stimulate women's participation in decision-making processes. The engagement of diverse citizens is recognized as an important element of the Cambodian democratic development process.

One way WE Act is empowering youth is by supporting the efforts of a local organization called the People Center for Development and Peace, or PDP Center. Along with Youth Coalition for Unity and Development, Pact selected PDP Center to receive a grant and other support to help them impart to Cambodia’s youth knowledge and skills to effectively engage in multi-stakeholder dialogues, conduct evidence-based advocacy, and strengthen their networks. PDP Center targets youth between the ages of 15 and 35 in Kampot Province and Phnom Penh.

Sovandane heard about PDP Center’s work. Maybe its trainings could help her gain confidence in public speaking, she thought, and maybe it was her responsibility after all to help address problems in her community. She decided to take part, receiving free training on public speaking, leadership skills and networking. She built up her knowledge and gained opportunities to be a role model for other youth, especially young women. 

After the trainings, she took part in a key community meeting in Sangkat. “It was a good opportunity to listen to other senior youth’s ideas and raise my thoughts.”

"I never thought a girl like me could do social work, leading other youth to address the issues in my community."

Ouk Sovandane

Soon she began volunteering with a youth network to help her community. 

“I am so proud of my achievements in attending courses,” she says. “I am a new generation. I hope I can pay something back to my society with my education, as life needs to be a balance between take and give.”

Today, Sovandane is a local youth leader, and she is putting most of her effort into developing Sangkat and building civic engagement there. Her youth network is engaging with Sangkat’s government council, encouraging it to use social media to share more information with citizens. The network is also focusing on Covid-19, raising awareness about the virus and advocating for better public health measures including improved waste management.

“I never thought a girl like me could do social work, leading other youth to address the issues in my community,” she says.

“I know that being a leader is not easy, but it is a golden opportunity.”