Kheir Pum is the leader of Laoeun Jong’s youth serving group, a visionary, entrepreneur, and all round abundance of positivity connecting this generation’s youth to the elders in the community. Photo: Sarah Jane

NTFP and Oxfam

Oxfam partners with NGO Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) who aim to empower youth through programmes that target indigenous groups facing issues with community land titling and the use of environmental resources. Their projects encourage networking among indigenous communities, to build the capacity of youth to understand their rights. Ms Kheir Pum has been involved in her village youth group since her older siblings received training from NTFP about note taking in meetings, money management and the importance of community building activities for youth. Kheir Pum has since continued the youth group and strengthened the network into the successful venture it is today. NTFP and Oxfam visited the community to learn more about how the youth in this village are positively influencing community development.

Moi-bak-ca-ouf

Moi-Bak-Ca-Ouf, my free hand spelling of I love you in Krung, the indigenous language of Laoeun Jong Village in Ratanakiri province.

This was the first thing the youth serving group taught me, the second was that the Khmer word I use to say “smile” every time I take a photo is equivalent to saying “look as silly as possible and make your smile as wide as a clowns”.

Apparently the actual Khmer word for smile is too dangerous with my untrained accent as a small pronunciation difference would infer something much less friendly.

The third thing I learn sitting cross legged in Laoeun Jong’s new village hall is that one person, anywhere in the world, in any circumstance, can inspire change.

Kheir Pum is the leader of Laoeun Jong’s youth serving group, a visionary, entrepreneur, and all round abundance of positivity connecting this generation’s youth to the elders in the community.

Introducing Laoeun Jong’s Youth Group

“Youth play an important role in terms of protecting identity and culture and they can help to connect the village to outsiders like NGOs and local authorities, to bring recognition and aid to the community,” Kheir Pum said.

At 25-year-old Kheir has been a part of the group for over ten years, since it was started by her siblings with the help of NGO Non-Timber Forest Products, but it is Kheir’s business mind that has made the youth group indispensable to the village.

The youth group has found solutions for community issues such as sourcing funds for secondary education and agriculture ventures, as well as improving youth behaviour and supporting community elders in ceremonies and sickness.

Kheir said the biggest challenge for the youth group was getting every family in the community to support the concept of a saving group; however her marketing mind quickly made involvement essential.

“When we started this idea some families did not allow their children to join this group.

“They felt like how can you just ask my children to work somewhere and earn money from their work but just put it in the group?

“I and some other members tried to pursue the families and explain how important the group was and what the plan was for the money they earned.

“Finally we have had some achievements, we built the latrine, and helped some members to go to school, now the families accept the value of this group and allow their children to come and join.

“If the family has children that are youth group age but have not allowed them to join the group, then we don’t help that family even if they need it.

“So now everyone supports the youth group in the village,” Kheir explains with the assurance of a leader but with a laugh of acknowledgement to the deliberate ‘catch 22’.

The high interest rate on money borrowed from micro-finance institutions make it an unfeasible option for youth in the community who need funds for education or farming, so this communal project which lends at low to no interest supports individual member’s business developments or study costs.

However, this youth serving group does more than provide monetary solutions; they provide a platform to strengthen youth leadership in the community and ensure there is no separation between male and female roles.

Equality and education

Sitting in a circle one of the boys explains the equal gender roles in the group and with the humour of his name, Phork (Pork) Nout, not lost on those at the meeting it’s easy to see that there is a lot of laughter, jokes, and no distinction between the 17 girls and 14 boys.

“We work all together.

“This morning we cleaned this hall and we all get the same education,” Phork Nout said.

This brings on an onslaught of jokes about how many times each of the older members have failed their final school exams.

While education is claimed to be free in Cambodia the youth here can only attend school on weekends as the building is too far away to attend every day and no one has the funds to cover rent closer to town.

Weekend education costs 25,000 riel per year but the limited time available to study makes passing exams a rare occurrence.

The cost of senior study was previously too high for individuals to afford but the serving group has now funded ten members to complete their exams.

“One of the successful things I have observed is before this group when youth don’t have money they are forced by the family to work and not go to school but now even though they don’t have money and may be forced by their family to work, they will try to work by themselves and then earn some money, and borrow some money from the group to go to weekend school,” Kheir Pum said.

A village surrounded by economic land concessions, Kheir spends much of her time encouraging youth to continue their education.

“We try to advise them and bring examples from our older siblings, some of our older siblings now become teachers and sellers and some even have jobs in companies.

“I try to explain that if they stop study now, then later when we don’t even have land to farm and grow our agriculture crops that if we don’t have knowledge then we cannot survive,” she said.

Community contribution

Kheir believes that youth can help a lot in the community if they have the networks to do so and she happily reports that they have turned around the youth violence that was becoming common in the village.

“A few years back there were many gang groups because the youth just didn’t go to school and some youth even got arrested by the police.

“Since we have formed this group the youth come and join us and we do activities together and we try to earn money together.

“We share hope and try to do our best so they stop drinking and start working,” Kheir said.

With one million riel currently in savings, the group has contributed funds and labor to community amenities like the new latrine, and Kheir has plans for new small businesses such as a girls group to make and sell items made from silk. 

As she rushes to pick up her younger sister Kheir explains her thoughts on youth development, expanding to villages nearby, and gaining recognition at a commune level.  

“I think youth here still need some training regarding to leadership and also some skills for their jobs or to find jobs.

“I also wish to join the commune meeting that they have monthly because I want to connect to the local authorities and raise the issues from this community to them.

“I want other people to know our youth group and we want to learn from other networks if we have the opportunity.”

As she speeds off, this whirl-wind leader full of energy and hope sprays a flurry of ideas from the back of her moto, leaving me covered in admiration… and a lot of red dirt.