17-year-old Kimleang from our Mighty Girls Programme made it into the finals of the Asian Girls Rights Awards and received the opportunity to promote girls rights across the island of Taiwan. The young Cambodian was accompanied by a Nepalese and Indian girl who had also been selected as Girl Ambassadors by the Garden of Hope Foundation out of 60 applications from all over Asia. Together, the girls travelled across Taiwan to educate their peers about gender equality and the role education and sports can have in empowering women and young girls. They had been invited to join the celebrations of Taiwan Girls Day on October 11th which corresponds to the International Day of the Girl Child of the United Nations.
In the run up to this event, the three girls visited schools and other institutions throughout Taiwan to discuss the situation of girls in their own countries and Taiwan with youth and adults alike. In between, Kimleang also promoted girl empowerment and described her own life and dreams in interviews she gave in English to a Taiwanese radio station and a magazine – after only three years of learning this language. She is proud of the path she took to get to where she is today: “Before I was just a normal girl that lives in the community, not brave enough, always shy, all the time. But when I joined the Mighty Girls Programme at SALT Academy they all encouraged me to learn about equal rights, life skills, especially sports, because it makes me proud and I can speak in front of people.”
And this is what she did on various occasions throughout her busy five day ambassadorial trip all over Taiwan. On her first evening, she received an award by the Garden of Hope Foundation in the framework of the New Taipei City Award Ceremony. In her speech to a crowd of 100 young high school girls from the region, she highlighted the special role sports can play in empowering young girls. Taking her own example, she described how soccer empowered her who, three years after joining the Mighty Girls Programme, today teaches English, life skills, and soccer to younger girls at SALT Academy.
Her own career also triggered off a vivid discussion at St. Dominic Catholic High School in southern Taiwanese Kaohsiung District where she joined the Girls Day Celebrations a day later. Growing up with four siblings in a poor family, she would have never imagined obtaining higher education or playing soccer as a girl, let alone to become a role model for younger girls at home or abroad. In Cambodia, it is common for poor girls to quit school before grade nine, then get married soon after and take care of the family, while working on farms or factories all day long. Kimleang explained to the high school boys and girls how SALT Academy made her engage in sports, continue school, and how this changed her whole life and perspective of the future. Today, she plans to go into politics in order to improve the situation of girls in her country. She also moderated the debate to make the boys and girls think of different ways to improve gender equality in their own country.
Kimleang’s trip to Asia also gave her the opportunity to meet her role models. She visited Kaohsiung’s Women Center where she held a speech about gender equality and was invited for lunch with business women from the region. Also, she participated in a meet and greet with Kaohsiung’s first ever elected female mayor.
Back in Taipei, Kimleang continued her work as Girl Ambassador by speaking at the event “Across Boundaries” at the Tsai Jui-Yueh Dance Research Institute. There she promoted the idea of girls doing sports and told the young students about her own experiences as a female soccer player in Cambodia. “Sports are traditionally regarded as a domain for boys in my country,” she explained, “Girls are seen as ugly when being muscular and sun-tanned.” However, through the work of SALT Academy this perception is changing bit by bit, and she is happy to tell, “Because people see that we receive a good education, learn about life skills, human hygiene and protection from HIV/AIDS and we become leaders who also change the life of our communities as we forward our new knowledge and skills to them.”
During a “Girl Friendly City Gathering” in Taipei the same day, Kimleang also shared her visions of a girl-friendly city. “I dream of a city where girls feel safe walking alone at night, where boys and girls have equal opportunities for higher education and are both allowed to do sports and are not pushed off the fields,” she said during the parade, urging politicians to help make this dream come true for the participating girls.
On October 11th, Taiwan’s National Day, Kimleang participated in a cultural tour of the city and learned about Taiwan’s rich past and present. Late that day, the three Girl Ambassadors were invited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the 103rd National Day Reception at the Taipei Guest House. Kimleang was overwhelmed by the look of the manor house in which the reception took place and – also – being able to walk on the red carpet to the reception while receiving special treatment as a V.I.P.! “The costumes of the opera singers, the traditional clothing and the ice sculptures were marvellous!” she still raved.
The last day of her exciting job as Girl Ambassador, Kimleang participated in a Gender Camp at Garden of Hope Headquarters in Taipei and shared her experiences at SALT Academy. Despite the general perception of sports as a male domain, she, as a young Cambodian woman plays soccer in the Academy’s Mighty Girls Team while coaching two younger teams. SALT Academy enabled her to develop her leadership and teaching skills and provided her with knowledge on setting goals, health or the dangers of drug abuse and human trafficking. The Mighty Girl Kimleang set herself a high goal in life: “I do not want to learn it all for myself. I want to share it with all the boys and girls in my country and also other countries because my country is not rich, so especially in the countryside they know nothing about how to protect yourself from HIV, hygiene issues and so on. I want them to know.”
The culminating event of Kimleang’s stay in Taiwan was the ceremony of the 12th Formosan Girls Awards and the 2nd Asian Girls Award. She was a finalist herself, although the award was given to Ishity Uppal from India, who fights against female infanticide.
During the ceremony, Kimleang first joined the Taiwanese group “GirlBeHeard”, which had accompanied the three Girl Ambassadors throughout the week, in their final performance for gender equality and female rights on the stage. Afterwards, she gave the audience a short insight into Cambodian culture through a traditional Khmer dance as her one last act as an Ambassador for Cambodia before flying back home early in the morning of October 12th.
Kimleang is grateful for this opportunity of promoting women empowerment as a Girl Ambassador: “I am now much braver in talking in front of large groups of people and I feel well prepared to push for women’s rights and help empower girls to overcome the challenges they still face so often in our countries. I want boys and girls to realize that together, they have an important role in working towards gender equality. I really think our generation can make a huge difference here.”