On this International Women’s Day, we would like to share the story of Phou Mom, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, who has spent the past 40 years advocating education as a tool for rebuilding Cambodian society.
In Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), many intellectuals were murdered and around 90% of the schools were destroyed. Among the victims of this regime was Mom, who at 76 years old, has become a model of inspiration for many women in her community and more.
A painful journey
Under the regime, all those who lived in cities were forced into the countryside, to work on communal farms. Among them was Mom. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge forced Mom and her family out of Phnom Penh to Pong Toek commune, in Kep province in Cambodia’s southwest, where she still lives today. « We had to walk barefoot here with nothing but shirts on our backs, » recalls Mom. “It took 18 days. They separated the men from the women and I had to carry my two children, just four years and four months old. We had nothing to eat except a little raw rice and what strangers gave us along the way. We were starving, people were dying. ”
In Pong Toek commune, Mom was separated from her children every day to slave as a worker in the rice fields, which she endured for over three years. As she recounts the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, which claimed the lives of nearly two million people (25% of the country’s population), she maintains a smile, demonstrating not only her unwavering resilience but her ability to find hope and purpose, even in tragedy.
Literacy as a way out
Soon after the regime ended, the village chief of Pong Toek, who learned that Mom had studied until the end of middle school, asked her if she could stay and teach literacy classes. Although the village bore horrible memories, she was inspired to take the opportunity to change it for the better and not to let those memories haunt her. Mom began teaching community literacy in 1979 in the ruins of schools, destroyed by the regime. It was a difficult time to motivate the children and the teachers but Mom remained committed, keeping her conviction that « a life without education is not a full life ».
Over the past 40 years, this commitment has led her to transform her community. She became head of the commune in 1989, a role that is rarely held by a woman. « I couldn’t believe it, I felt particularly proud because it was generally reserved for men », she said. “But I was elected because my voluntary work made me popular, I was considered a role model dedicated to making the community a better place to live.”
A role model for everyone
Today, Mom stands in her communal office, proud to serve the seven villages of the commune and the 11,567 inhabitants by offering better health, education and development opportunities to those who need it most. Over the years, she’s worked closely with Aide et Action to identify the areas requiring preschools and selected community members to train to teach. Aide et Action and the municipality together support teachers’ salaries and the construction of new preschool buildings. Mom also works closely with the provincial Ministry of Education and has received government approval and recognition for her participation in improving education in the province.
Mom is an inspiration to men and women alike, in her commune and further afield. The success of Aide et Action’s early childhood care and education projects in the province of Kep is due to the commitment of leaders like Mom who not only welcomed the change, but embraced it, demonstrating that education is the key to the reconstruction of societies, even after periods of war and genocide.