[Member Spotlight] This Life Cambodia

This member spotlight features an interview with @jaimegill, of This Life Cambodia, the winners of the 2019 Grassroots Justice Prize Public Vote!

Their organization was founded in 2007.

What is your mission?

Our vision is for vulnerable children, families and communities in Cambodia to be supported to access and create opportunities in this life. Our mission is to listen to, engage with and advocate alongside children, families and communities as they define and act on their own solutions to complex social challenges

Our values are that as an organisation This Life Cambodia will:

  • Respect local culture and value local expertise
  • Utilise rights-based and strengths-based approaches
  • Contribute to evidence-based good practices
  • Plan for sustainability, with clear entry and exit strategies
  • Act with integrity, accountability and transparency

We have spent ten years working alongside communities to develop projects that benefit the lives of children and families in Cambodia. We work in rural and urban areas with people who face compound disadvantages resulting from and contributing to the cycle of poverty. Our work engages with children, their families, schools, and other civil service organisations and local, provincial and national governance structures. Our work increasingly involves public campaigning for change, on the challenges that Cambodians tell us have the biggest impact on them.

How are you using legal empowerment to address the problems / issues you address?

TLC provides legal empowerment to individuals and communities across the wide range of our projects. The first of these was This Life Beyond Bars, which started in 2010 to support young people in conflict with the law. Legal empowerment is also at the core of our newest program designed to combat domestic violence, This Life Without Violence, which began its life in 2014.

As a history of our legal empowerment work, since 2010 This Life Beyond Bars has worked with hundreds of young people in Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey and Phnom Penh’s Prisons. When the program began in Siem Reap Prison 60% of juveniles released from prison were reoffending within the first 6 months. The recidivism rate of students who complete the This Life Beyond Bars program and return to their community now sits at only 2% within the first 6 months, and 4% in total.

This project then developed further into two additional separate programs, This Life in Family and This Life In Community, which were born in 2016. This Life In Family is dedicated to supporting vulnerable families at risk of separation due to a parent or primary caregiver coming into conflict with the law. The project aims to intervene at the moment a family member comes into conflict with the law. This ensures that rights are upheld and respected, referrals are provided for legal representation. With This Life in Community, our goal is to enlist community support for children and families who are at risk of being separated primarily due to family members being imprisoned.

Also in 2016 we launched our This Life Without Violence Program, following research which commenced in 2014. This program aims to reduce the incidence of violence against women and children in Cambodia and its destructive impact on women, girls, children, families and communitie. A key factor in this is raising awareness of the law (only 8% of the population knows that there is a law that gives women and children the right to live a life free of violence) among families, communities, local authorities including village chiefs, commune councils and police and empowering them to use this to break the cycle of violence.

What kind of issues does your legal empowerment work address?

While we provide a range of legal empowerment services and advice, including providing advocacy and support to young people in prison, advising communities on how to legally get involved in struggling education systems and more, the area we are most actively campaigning around is our legal empowerment of women and children facing domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a profound problem in Cambodia. At least 1 in 5 women experience violence from a spouse or partner, while 50% of children report violence from adults in their lives. The problem is compounded by social attitudes which make people believe this to be normal – indeed, until recently, the “Chbab Srey” (or “Women’s Law”) was taught in Cambodian schools, and demanded subservience and obedience from women towards their husbands. While this practice has now been ended, the attitudes linger. This is one reason why only 1 in 4 women who experience violence seek any help: 40% of those who do not say it is because they consider the violence “normal”.

Another primary reason why women do not seek any help is that awareness of the law against domestic violence is very low amongst the whole population. Just 8% of people are aware that women and children have the legal right to live free of violence, and this lack of awareness often extends to the police and other local authorities. Women therefore have little awareness of their legal rights and even when they do little confidence that the authorities will also have this awareness and act on them. Our program tackles both of these problems, and more.

How are you using legal empowerment to address these problems?

Our legal empowerment work when dealing with domestic violence is split into two areas – public campaigning at a national level and direct, grassroots action at a local level.

Nationally, we launched a major campaign raising awareness of the law in November 2018. We created a set of online legal resources, including a readable copy of the law, the first audio version of the law for people who could not read and a list of places to go to seek intervention, help and support. We believe this to be one of the best legal resources on domestic violence in Cambodia. We promoted these resources through a creative short film and a 16 day online campaign of endorsements and messages against domestic violence from highly influential and famous Cambodians. This campaign included creative elements such as a digital protective helmet full of legal advice for people to download and save to their smartphones. The campaign was backed by widespread media coverage in newspapers and events in the community, helping reach women who are not online.

The scale of the impact was vast. Our video informing people of the law was seen by more than 1 million Cambodians, and the campaign materials were shared on Facebook more than 9,000 times. In all, the Facebook campaign alone (not including Instagram, YouTube, print media, online coverage etc) reached over 4,000,000 people – which is a quarter of the population. Most importantly, more than 13,000 people visited our web page of legal advice and resources. All of thisled to greatly increased awareness of the law, which we will continue to measure this year through formal surveys. In addition, we received messages publicly and privately from people who said they had been inspired by the information to take action.

At the grassroots level we have worked informally over many years to advise women on their legal rights as part of our community-based work to strengthen families facing difficulties including poverty, criminal activity and violence. We began properly researching the issue of domestic violence and how to tackle it in 2014 and published a report exploring the problem in depth. Following the research we piloted a program which included legal empowerment as a key component, and the results were so successful that in 2018 we rolled out a full program. Our This Life Without Violence program works on several levels to provide legal advice and support to women, including monthly meetings attended by hundreds where advice and information are offered, training on violence and the law for local authorities including police, and work with secondary school students to teach them about the law and gender equality at an early age.

More than 900 women have now attended our monthly meetings and received legal advice, though we believe our work to educate 100 local authority members will mean that many thousands of women stand to benefit from authorities who understand their legal obligations to protect them. We know of many women who were facing violence and did not seek any kind of intervention who went on to do so, knowing their legal rights, and are now living free of violence as a result. Our program has just been expanded thanks to the success of what has been achieved so far and we now have the funding to reach 7,389 direct beneficiaries over the next 3 years.

Is there an aspect of your legal empowerment work that is particularly innovative?

Tackling a justice problem as long-standing, entrenched and intractable as this means that true success can only be confirmed when a long period of time has passed, to ensure that the greater knowledge of the law has been retained by those we reached. We intend to continue measuring the results through research for many years in the future. However, we do believe that our national campaign achieved greater visibility and – critically - engagement than previous campaigns against domestic violence in Cambodia. By reaching 1,800,000 of the population with the clear message that domestic violence is a crime, and targeting that message principally at women who are affected by the issue, we estimate we have doubled the number of people aware of the law from 8% to 16%. We intend to continue to increase awareness with future campaigns.

We believe our message worked because of the creativity of our approach and its focus on engagement and interaction. Most domestic violence campaigns have taken a “loudhailer” approach of simply broadcasting information. We engaged the audience in various ways to ensure the message was absorbed and, critically, that legal resources were instantly available.

The short film grabbed attention through a surprising, mysterious set of recognisably Cambodian situations before revealing its core message, the downloadable digital helmet, and the first audio version of the law. Another groundbreaking element was the use of celebrities/influencers with very different backgrounds and fanbases (including feminist icons, pop stars, actors) to spread our legal and moral message, including at least one celebrity who’d experienced the issue speaking out for the first time. All these elements grabbed attention and raised awareness in a different way than previous campaigns, leading to a full page piece in the Phnom Penh Post about the campaign going viral headlined “NGO’s domestic violence exceeds 1 million Facebook views".

The most important creatively engaging element was our film, designed to puzzle and intrigue before revealing its true message. The film showed four women from different backgrounds entering very different homes, but first putting on the instantly recognizable Cambodian symbol of a motorcycle helmet. In the final frames it was revealed the reason they needed to protect themselves was because they were facing violence indoors and that in the real world they couldn’t wear a helmet – which is why Cambodians had to protect themselves by knowing the law.

Our innovations didn’t stop there. Recording our own audio version of the law – the first time this has been done in Cambodia – meant our legal information reached people who did not read. We also introduced creative, interactive elements to the campaign. One was the digital helmet of legal information which people saved to their phone and another was an orange helmet Facebook frame so that people could publicly demonstrate their support.

We also ensured that the campaign reached beyond technology users, notably on our “Tell A Friend Day” where we encouraged people to show the video to someone without access to the Internet, with a prize for one winner who did so.

We also take an innovative approach to our grassroots work ensuring we are building capacity, raising awareness and changing behaviours not just today but for the future generations. Through developing and delivering a five-lesson curriculum to be provided to children in Lower Secondary School we have created a common framework for children to understand respectful relationships. Our direct capacity building for sub-national governance, family and child protection mechanisms ensures structures are in place beyond the life of the project, enabling existing community and local authority structures to respond to cases of domestic violence and child protection.

What are the strategies you employ to ensure the long-term sustainability of your work?

One of the simplest ways of ensuring the sustainability of the national campaign is keeping our website of legal information permanently online. Even after the campaign closed it is still being visited by over a hundred people each month. We plan to run similar campaigns over the next two years to reach more people and ensure raised awareness stays raised.

Our grassroots work is built with sustainability in mind. Our monthly women’s meetings are designed to arm women with legal information which they can then share with other women who did not attend, and continue to pass on this information long into the future. We have also supported the formation of a number of women’s support groups so that people in the communities can become leaders and advocates with the knowledge and legal information to help their peers. The support groups have been designed to become a permanent fixture of each community’s internal structures, so that they – and the knowledge they contain – will long outlast our involvement.

Also important is the engagement of provincial, district and local level government structures and functions in program activities. Supporting and enhancing networks and connections between sub-national frameworks in the community, in particular those at the local governance level and the community members themselves, is an important feature of the program. The program is committed to developing partnerships with other NGO’s and government bodies working in the target district and communes. Such partnerships serve to enhance the outcomes for those at risk and enable the team to build strong relationships with all stakeholders while strengthening the government’s ability to respond to community needs now and in the future.

Through a focus on developing an understanding of these social issues with youth in lower secondary schools the program takes a longer-term approach to addressing risk factors before they are acted upon, an investment in a better future.

Do you have any key tips for other practitioners?

In terms of the national campaign we learnt the power of influencers and celebrities in communicating what might otherwise be seen as “dry” messages about legal matters. We also learnt that by creating compelling content, such as our short video, it was possible to engage a wide audience in discussions of the law and social attitudes. During the campaign, hundreds of Cambodians not only shared and liked our campaign materials including the legal resources, but engaged in debate through the comments sections.

In our grassroots work we have learnt that domestic violence has been one of the top three priorities raised by communities in which we have conducted Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRAs) over the past three years. Through our collaborative work with the communities and through our PRAs and community consultations we have been able to better understand the communities. Prominent issues identified both social and economic factors, like drug & alcohol misuse, gambling and poverty together with gender inequality and gender norms, were viewed as the primary risk factors contributing to domestic violence. The communities themselves identified their lack of knowledge and understanding on how to prevent domestic violence, what their legal rights were, and how to communicate with the commune leaders to fulfill their mandated roles and responsibilities. As a result we are providing capacity building to establish foundational knowledge and improve responses by local authorities.

In short, our biggest lesson has been to listen to communities and use their insights to develop community-based legal empowerment and support, and to communicate information about available legal options. We also found that it is important to provide case management support to families experiencing violence.

You can learn more about the work of This Life Cambodia on their website

5 Likes

I am very impressed with this organization. In my former organization (ZLSC) we used to have program of Children Conflicts with the law but from their perspective is young conflicts with the law. I need to learn more from this organization for the aim of transforming its success to my region.

2 Likes

Thanks for such an encouraging comment and we would be very happy to share any knowledge we have. There are actually quite a few reports on our website where you can learn more about how we empower young people in conflict with the law, or do get in touch. Thank you.

3 Likes

Thanks for nice reply. We are together.


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