Fourteen year old Lay Ratana experienced the vulnerability and voicelessness of youth
four years ago.
Lay Ratana (right) with manager and chaperone Peng Sokunthea.
"When I was 10 I was a servant for a family. The landlords beat me and sometimes
cut off my wages if their meals were not prepared on time," she said.
Like many Cambodian girls from poor families Rattana dropped out of her village school
with little education, having completed just grade two. One of five children, she
moved to Phnom Penh and took a job as a housemaid that lead to her nightmare of abuse.
"When I returned to my village a year later my parents asked me not to go back
to my abusive employers," she said.
In 1998 she found a new life with the Vulnerable Children Assistance Organization
Now Ratana is at school completing grade six and preparing for a trip to New York
The bright and articulate teenager had been due to represent Cambodia's youth at
United Nation's Extraordinary Congress on Youth scheduled for this month.
"The departure was set for September 19 but it has been delayed until next year
by the terrorist attack," she said.
Aside from her schooling, Ratana has worked at VCAO based in Takeo province since
1998 where she is a talented child peer group leader. It's a role that led to her
selection for the UN event.
"Three years ago my parents wanted me to understand about the rights of children.
So they allowed me to take part in the 'Friends Teach Friends' of VCAO," she
At VCAO she not only learnt about the problems facing Cambodian children, but also
the issues faced by children in countries all over the world. In Cambodia, she learnt
about child labor, child sex abuse and children affected by AIDS.
Now she passes the knowledge she has gained onto others. Six times each month she
spends two hours providing education to children from 6 to 18 years old.
"Those children in the village are keen to learn about child rights," she
said. "I always teach them something new."
VCAO transformed her life.
"Before there was no light in my life, only a gloom," she said, adding
that her hope for the future is to keep working for the organization.
There is still much to be done. "I see the Cambodian children have been in difficult
situations in the past and resent it. Because Cambodia is not a rich country, many
children are forced to work," she said. "I appeal to the government and
the UN to take a strong measures to solve problems of children."
Ratana will have the opportunity to deliver that appeal in person when she goes to
New York next April.
She was selected to go to the UN during the Asian Children Culture forum held in
Bangkok last April. Children from seven Asean countries attended the meeting to share
their knowledge and experience of children's issues.
Ratana presented the meeting with a moving address on child rights in Cambodia and
her own experience of abuse.
"They selected the children who have good behavior and I was the one to be selected
to attend the extraordinary session in the United States," she said.
Ratana is only just beginning to learn English. While in New York she will be helped
with translations and chaperoned by Peng Sokunthea, 20, a program assistant manager
for the CRF.
A fourth year law student Sokunthea is already an old hand at international meetings.
In 1997 and 1998 she attended the world march of children against child labor in
the Philippines. She said she has been to more than 15 countries, including Nepal,
India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Greece, to attend meetings on child rights issues.
For Ratana the meeting will be a rare opportunity to have the voice of Cambodian
"Usually the government does not pay much attention to us," she said.