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Youth ambassadors bound for United Nations

Youth ambassadors bound for United Nations

youth.jpg
youth.jpg

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

(VCAO).

Now Ratana is at school completing grade six and preparing for a trip to New York

next year.

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

said.

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

youth heard.

"Usually the government does not pay much attention to us," she said.

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