Photo caption: Ms. Sokchan is the founder of an organization for women with mobility impairments in Battambang
By Sakshi Jain
Chum Reap Suor!
It has been a few months since I wrote my last blog, and what an exciting few months it has been! First, on a personal front, I finally found some time to visit the Angkor Wat Temple Complex in Siem Reap – and watching the sun rise over the Angkor Wat temple on Christmas morning was a breathtaking experience! Waking up at 3:30 am was definitely worth it! I can also now cook a vegetarian version of two popular Khmer dishes – the Lok Lak (typically a beef dish) and the Amok (typically made with fish).
The hotel that I stayed at in Siem Reap was almost exclusively staffed by young people (18-25 years old). The hotel supports them while they attend university and they get paid work experience. Siem Reap is a tourist hub, so many NGOs and private sector partners offer youth the opportunity to gain skills in hospitality while studying – this helps many young people continue their education. Programs like this also reinforce the importance of engaging the private sector to achieve decent employment for youth in the country. Luckily, UNDP has increasingly recognized the need for more private sector engagement, and we are in the process of strategizing private sector engagement for the next phase of the youth employment project.
On the internship front, in December I had the opportunity to participate in my first field research project. As a part of the UN Joint Programme on Youth Employment, one of the research studies UNDP has commissioned is a qualitative study to analyze and understand the barriers to employment that young people with disabilities (PWDs) face in Cambodia. I had the opportunity to assist the researcher for this study, and I accompanied the team to two provinces: Battambang and Kampung Cham. We spent three days in each province and met with a variety of stakeholders – employers, people with disabilities, and NGO and government representatives in the disability, employment and training sector.
This was a fantastic learning experience. I now understand how qualitative research is done; I now recognize the importance of having a good translator; and perhaps most importantly, I realize just how much is lost in translation. It was also an important exercise in realizing just how deeply embedded negative perceptions of disability are in the country, and how societal perceptions affect employment of PWDs. So far, the narrative has been that PWDs may not have the necessary skill sets to perform different types of work, and so interventions for many years have been focused on the demand side of the labour market for PWDs. This study, however, reinforced the need for supply side interventions that focus on spreading awareness about the abilities of PWDs and the type of accommodations they need in order to be able to do productive work. I was blown away by the sheer resilience of the PWDs we talked to, and how they choose to carry on to get experience to not only support themselves, but also support others. One such woman, Ms. Sokchan, is the founder of an organization for women with mobility impairments. The organization creates handicrafts and they hope to have a profitable enterprise in the near future.
The stories of the PWDs I met during this research, and the stories of the young people I met during my stay in Siem Reap, stayed with me for a long time after. Experiences like this make me extremely grateful for my own privilege, having had a family that supported my aspirations, and could afford education. This has also allowed me to support myself through an unpaid 6-month internship to get work experience in a field that I’m interested in.
It also raises the question of how we break this perpetual cycle of the privileged being able to afford unpaid internships and thus being able to have the work experience that is needed to be competitive in the job market. How can people from more vulnerable backgrounds get the experiences they need to become the next generation of leaders? If such an uneven playing field exists within the UN system, which strives for sustainable development, then what happens in other spheres? To anyone thinking of doing an internship with the United Nations, I would suggest applying through UN Volunteer programs, or Junior Professional Officer Programs, as these are paid opportunities. Several UN agencies have also started paying their interns now, so hopefully we are moving towards a more inclusive future.
My academic background in policy-making has helped me greatly in this journey, but these last few months learning about programmes and executing some grassroots-level projects has given me a much more in-depth understanding of the front-line challenges of development work. I’ve also had the opportunity to lead my own mini-activity on advocacy training on policy-making for youth – I’ll share more about it in my next blog! Stay tuned! 😊