She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
She says: “We hope that what we are doing is bringing about reform from the bottom, and that the concepts of democracy and transparency are instilled in the minds of people”.
And: “After these encounters I wanted to do something to rebuild my country. Cambodia then was isolated from the rest of the world. It had to start from an empty hand to rebuild the country after the long isolation from 1979 to 1991”.
And also: “I found that people were very strong and resourceful. I was amazed at the way they gathered themselves after the catastrophe to start a new life with little assistance. I was sad to see how little people had, and was angry at the system of resource distribution in our country. But I was hopeful”.
Boua Chanthou – Cambodia
She works for Partnership for Development in Kampuchea (Padek).
Boua Chanthou (born 1952) left Cambodia to go to school abroad in 1972. When she returned eight years later at the end of the civil war, her country was devastated and deserted. Boua decided to work for its reconstruction.
To bring back the community spirit among Cambodians, she encouraged the setting up of a small savings program, vocational skills training and monitoring development aid to ensure that it benefits the grassroots communities. Now Boua heads the Partnership for Development in Kampuchea (Padek), which was established in 1979.
When Boua Chanthou left Cambodia in 1972 to study abroad, she did not know that she would not be able to return home until eight years later. And when she did, she found that no one in her family survived the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Her parents and her seven siblings were all dead. Chanthou went to the Thai-Cambodian border to find out how they died but no one could tell her what happened. “The capital city was deserted, houses were ruined. There was so much destruction,” Chanthou recalls. She then traveled to several provinces – partly to search for the remains of her parents and siblings, which was impossible in the absence of DNA evidence. Along the way, she found lots of new mass graves. Chanthou spoke to many people in her quest and this became the entry point for her involvement in improving the lives of her fellow Cambodians. She took on the responsibility to record the isolation her country faced and the sufferings of its people. “I sought to tell the world about the difficulties our people face. There was no assistance. No development aid. Nothing,” she remembers.
Women were particularly in great difficulty. As the men got killed, women became the majority of the population after the internal war. Most of them were over the age of 30 and poor, with few resources, says Chanthou, the mother of two from her marriage to an American, from whom she is divorced. “Women were the first priority then. They were the majority. Cambodia was a country of women whose lives were terrible,” says Chanthou, who worked as a gender officer for the Cambodian Development Resource Institute, and adviser to the Secretariat of State for Women’s Affairs. She also wrote several reports on women in Cambodia and their role in national reconstruction. Chanthou authored a book, which addressed Cambodia’s urgent need for assistance. Unfortunately, publishers in Thailand refused to print it, but with the intervention of the United Nations Funds for Children (Unicef), the book was published elsewhere. Chanthou believes that the book helped make people aware of the grave situation in her country. The UN increased assistance, and some countries assisted the country financially through non-governmental organizations. Women were helped to settle in other countries.
With her educational background in economics, education and multicultural studies, Chanthou taught bilingual education to migrant children in Australia from 1980 to 1995, but returned once in a while to do consultancy work on the socio-economic situation in Cambodia working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Oxfam UK and Oxfam America. Her work required her to travel to several provinces where she talked to farmers and teachers on kinds of development programs that they wanted, and how they saw the performance of development aid. This hope inspired Chanthou to start a program that would bring back the community spirit of assisting each other. She helped organize self-help groups composed of 15 to 25 families who assist each other through a savings fund. There are now 250 villages where similar self-help groups have been formed. Chantou has been director of Partnership for Development in Kampuchea or Padek since 1996. Padek takes a bottom-up approach to development, involving strong community participation and a strong focus on gender integration. It is a consortium that focuses on poverty alleviation by addressing the issue of organization building, food security, education and culture and health in five project areas in Cambodia: Svay Rieng, Prey Veng, Kompong Speu, Siem Reap, and Phnom Pehn.
Padek works in 250 villages, as a facilitator to strengthen the capacity of civil society organizations to manage and coordinate resources for the total development of their communities. Focusing on addressing the structural causes of poverty, it facilitates the formation of social safety nets for people to access resources to meet their basic needs and prosper in a sustainable way. Padek networks closely with government, NGOs and other people’s organizations to promote sustainable patterns of development for Cambodia. It promotes human rights, child rights, and gender equity as well as capacity building.
Through Padek, Chanthou has developed training programs on various subjects that are important to the community such as fisheries, veterinary science, and health training for traditional birth attendance.
The role of the traditional midwife is very important in Cambodia where only 30 per cent of births are in hospitals. The rest are done at home. Without adequate knowledge among the traditional birth attendants, maternal mortality rates are high. The government’s program to teach nurses, meanwhile, did little to improve the situation, as the trained nurses were reluctant to go to the villages, Chanthou explains. Community development programs, she points out, need to be integrated, from clean water to education for the young especially girls, to adult literacy. At the national and international levels, the issues of development aid and democracy is closely related and need to be monitored. “Institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations have provided huge amounts of money through the government for reforms. Little, however, goes to the bottom, to the grassroots level,” says Chanthou. She wrote about development aid and democracy in Cambodia in a 1993 book entitled “Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia.” Every year, Padek organizes a general assembly for farmers and other concerned parties to meet and discuss problems ranging from lands rights to the drop in the prices of agricultural commodities.
Landlessness in Cambodia is severe, affecting some 25 to 40 per cent of farmers. While the agriculture sector is on the verge of collapse, there is not enough policy, action, or commitment to salvage the situation. Meanwhile, there is rising concern over the spread of agribusiness from which poor farmers receive little benefit. “We bring their concerns together and translate them at the national level through our publications, meetings, workshops and conferences,” Chanthou explains. Padek also engages in relief activities, distributing rice and other food items to victims of drought, which annually affect vast areas of Cambodia.
“This is something good to know. Something from which you get your energy to move on, when you see in people’s eyes how much our efforts are appreciated,” says Chanthou. She cited a woman who had taken the responsibility to mobilize people to discuss problems in her community and report to Padek. “Such women are our heroes,” she says. Chantou says that her work in providing venues for partnership, dialogue and practical programs in the community, and her advocacy activities are her contribution to democracy and human rights in her effort to rebuild her country. “We hope that what we are doing is bringing about reform from the bottom, and that the concepts of democracy and transparency are instilled in the minds of people,” says Chanthou.
She foresees the obstacles ahead, though, such as poverty, bad governance, and unequal distribution of resources. The move toward a market economy in Cambodia as in anywhere else, she says, tends to favor those who have more access to technology. The peaceful society she envisions is one where the gap between the rich and the poor is breached, a society where people are allowed to earn a decent living according to their abilities. The goal of her organization is a society that is “equitable, peaceful, self-reliant, and where there is no poverty.”
In April 2002, Chanthou received the Gold Medal for National Reconstruction from the government for Padek’s continuing poverty eradication projects in 69 poor villages in seven communities in Prey Veng province. In February 2003, she received another medal from the government for Padek’s pioneering work in the field of aquaculture. The cooperation between the government and Padek since the early 1980s resulted in the rehabilitation of the Bati Fish Seed Production and Research Centre in Prey Veng province. (Read all on 1000peacewomen).
Some links about Partnership for Development in Kampuchea PADEK: