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Postcard from Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Bad girls and beer gardens: trainer Ulrike Butmaloiu watches as shy girls become confident young women, thanks to the media. She's in the Cambodian capital training young people how to teach media skills to others.

I'm a bad girl. I always thought that. But I never thought I'd be running a workshop for other bad girls as well. And yet here I am sitting with four of them in a Phnom Penh beer garden run by a German-Cambodian couple.

Everything we're doing here runs against the girls code - rules that have been passed down through the centuries and that Cambodian girls and women are still expected to adhere to.

So what is it that makes us oh-so-bad? It's the fact that we're talking, laughing out loud, and discussing serious issues. And not just in public, but together with a group of men!

These four young women are between the ages of 18 and 21. My colleague Sylvia Braesel and I are training them, and five of their five male counterparts, as part of a DW Akademie project. The goal is for them to become media skills trainers themselves.

The participants are from the provinces of Kampong Cham, northeast of the capital, and Svay Rieng, southeast of Phnom Penh on the border to Vietnam. It takes a few hours' journey by car to get to either province, and the landscapes on the way are dotted with water buffalo and rice fields.

By the time they return home from the capital, these young Cambodians will be able to start volunteering their time to run workshops and show rural youths how to work critically with the media. They'll introduce them to Facebook, Google and Twitter, and point out the advantages and disadvantages of social networks. They'll also examine how traditional media outlets work. In rural areas, state-run radio and television stations are still the most important sources of information.

Rewriting the code

Trainer Ulrike Butmaloiu and participants of Media Literacy workshop by DW Akademie in Cambodia (photo: DW Akademie/Thorsten Karg).

Courageous and unusual women are leaving the girls code behind

Here in the beer garden, or more accurately, in a seminar room attached to the beer garden, preparations are well underway for the participants' upcoming workshops. The fact that rural women are taking part in the project makes it, according to our Cambodian NGO partners the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) and MEDIA One, particularly special. They describe these young women as "courageous" and "unusual".

That's because Cambodian girls and women are still subjected to the girls code, especially in the provinces. The code dictates that women's roles are in the home, taking care of the children. These unwritten rules forbid them from wearing trousers or leaving the house unaccompanied by a man. And they're to endure any beatings by their husbands. Most girls have little education and therefore little chance to find a job. After about three years of schooling, most are sent to work in the fields.

Participants go into detail about the characteristics of a good girl: she carries out her duties with her gaze lowered, mouth shut. When she does speak, she never expresses her own opinion. I pretend to be appalled exclaiming, "How dare our partner organizations send only bad girls to the workshop!" And then we all start laughing loudly again.

A new generation of men

These women laugh without any sense of shame, not bothering to cover their mouths with their hands, so common in this part of the world. The men in the group like that. Yes, there are men in Cambodia who are against these kinds of traditional gender roles and domestic violence, and who are in favor of equal education opportunities for both sexes.

Does that make them bad boys, I ask? No, the participants tell me, there's a new generation of men - men who think differently and have parents who allow them to do so.

These young men and women can't wait to learn how to distinguish information from propaganda. But more than anything, they want to know more about new media and social networks. As part of the workshop they're tracking down stories that the state-run media either ignore or tell differently: stories regarding minority groups, youth and gender-related topics, and bribes. As much as the trainers and I welcome this, it's also a major challenge because only half of them are on Facebook, and some have never seen a website like this. Still, they all recognize the potential of social media.

Media skills

Trainer Ulrike Butmaloiu and participants of Media Literacy workshop by DW Akademie in Cambodia (photo: DW Akademie/Sylvia Bräsel).

"Bad girls" and "bad boys" together with trainer Ulrike Butmaloiu

But how does one teach ways to work with social media in regions where not everyone has access to a computer or a smart phone, and where online fees are too high for the very modest wages? Still, learning about social media is high on the participants' wish list.

So we start by going offline. Using cotton thread, cans of peas, tape, hemp rope and lots of pens, paper, glue, scissors, local newspapers and magazines, we explain the effects of "social" and "network". Then we use a beamer to look at Cambodian websites and analyze them together. Everyday we look at links between old and new media, and the differences between independent journalism, and reporting whose content has been determined by those with economic or political power.

We point to connections between the past and the present, between urban centers and rural regions - even in unexpected places. Just opposite the seminar room is one of the most notorious sites in Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng was a penitentiary and torture center run by the Khmer Rouge. In just five years 12,000 people were imprisoned and killed there. Of those who went through its gates, only seven came out alive. The barbed wire on the walls around it almost reaches the beer garden.

We'd visited the former prison, now a memorial site, on the first evening of the workshop. Participants took photos of the torture chambers and posted them on Facebook. Within seconds comments came in from the countryside. It was a moving moment, and once again showed how important social networks can be in a country like Cambodia.

And at times like these, it's great to be surrounded by bad girls and boys. If you ask me, the more the merrier!


Ulrike Butmaloiu is a DW Akademie trainer and project manager working in various countries including Cambodia, Ghana, the Palestinian Territories and Ukraine. She specializes in radio journalism, conflict-sensitive reporting and media skills. She also teaches political communication and media theory for DW Akademie's International Media Studies master's program, and reports from eastern Europe for radio, print and online media outlets.

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