By Saba Joshi. During my fieldwork in Cambodia, I took part in a project called Davis Projects for Peace. The Davis Project for Peace is an initiative of the Katherine Davis Foundation, which allows students from the Graduate Institute, Geneva to design and implement a grassroots project anywhere in the world. This year, my project titled “Peace of Mind: Indigenous Youth Learning for Peace in North-East Cambodia” was selected by the Graduate Institute and the Davis Foundation. As a result, I was able to organize a summer school for indigenous youth in Ratanakiri province- one of the target provinces for DEMETER.

I was inspired to implement this project because over my months of fieldwork here, I often met young people from diverse indigenous communities and discussed school life and prospects of education. Since there are no high schools near the villages, most students that want to study have to live away from their families in Banlung, the provincial capital. I learned about an association called the Highlander Association (HA), an association for indigenous people, that helped high school students from indigenous communities with accommodation, study support and mentoring during their high school studies in Banlung. I thought it could be interesting to organize an activity around learning and creativity for these high school students, potentially involving topics that are typically outside the curriculum. After some discussion with HA, we decided on the idea of indigenous people’s rights and natural resources; topics which are not a part of official school learning, but are increasingly pertinent given the transforming socio-political and ecological landscape of the province. Thus, I worked in partnership with HA to develop this project, which we implemented in the summer of 2017.

The summer school was held over two weekends in June (10-11 June and 17-18 June 2017) with a total of 79 students- 42 boys and 37 girls. Students had the option to choose one weekend to participate, and as a result each summer school session had 35-40 students. Our participants were between the ages of 14 to 20 years, from diverse indigenous communities in Ratanakiri, and studying in secondary school in Banlung. The venue for the summer school was the Yak Laom community hall, which is also managed by an association of indigenous people.

The curriculum for each session of the summer school was developed by HA and I; drawing on our collective expertise and interests of participants. The main topics of learning for each workshop session included: 1) Role of youth in indigenous communities in Cambodia, 2) Basic principles of human rights, 3) Gender and human rights 4) Human rights and natural resources. Activities included film-screenings, role play sessions, and group presentations. Materials used during the workshop such as hand-outs detailing UN conventions and Cambodian laws in Khmer, books on human rights in Khmer and a hand-held video camera were donated to the HA library. The remaining funds from the project were also donated to HA to continue English language classes for the indigenous students in the IDEAS project.

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Credit: Saba Joshi

To further human rights-related debates and discussions among the participating students, the Peace of Mind Project announced an essay competition at the end of the 4 day summer school. The topic for the essay was: “How can indigenous people in Cambodia advocate for their rights? Illustrate using examples from your community”. In this competition, three awards will be chosen for the best argued essays, which will also be translated into English from Khmer, and publicized using social media and blogs by the HA.

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Credit: Saba Joshi

This experience with school students from indigenous communities complemented and enriched my understanding of several aspects of rural life in Ratanakiri, which I am examining in my PhD research through DEMETER. At the beginning of the summer school, most participants stated that they had little or no knowledge about human rights or politics. However, over the course of the learning sessions, through discussions, and activities, it became evident that the students had observed and reflected upon a number of issues relating to discrimination, power and exploitation (human and natural), and their affects on themselves and their community. They performed plays, dance and music with great creativity. Over all, it made believe that by forging a balance of creative and intellectual energy, knowledge and awareness on political and legal issues can be made accessible to young people.