This post originally appeared on Dressing Up
Apparently there is a swimsuit for everyone. Turns out all this time I was just wearing mine with the wrong attitude…
This journey started with a simple Facebook message. What immediately followed was 48 hours of emotional turmoil, standing face to face with my relationship with my body. You see my body and I have never truly been friends. Unable to fit a single pair of pants from the age 14, stretch marks encircling my thighs from age 16, I didn’t value the curves I was given as a mixed ethnicity Kiwi. And then along came Monique, who asked me to do a photoshoot for Dressing Up…in swimwear. I can tell you, things have changed a lot since then - for a start I am writing this in the dark, under a mosquito tent in my dorm room in rural Cambodia.
But back to the swim shoot - Once I had absorbed the implications, the decision to do the shoot was an easy one. I loved Monique's blog and I knew the challenge would be good for me. Time to jump on this body positivity journey and get over my thick thighs! Enter the turmoil of a woman with no modelling experience about to be photographed in a swimsuit...for the internet...with zero retouching. The weeks that followed were a rollercoaster.
The photoshoot itself was alive with energy, confidence and support. I felt like I had really been missing out. With that, I had a new mission. Go all in and be confident in these curves! Rachel (Rachel F Cox - Plus Size Model) who was modelling with me made me feel so welcome and her incredible attitude was inspiring.
Monique's Swimwear post, How To Get A Swim Body This Summer…Put On A Swimsuit! was seen by over 50,000 people online. Some of my pictures were printed in VIVA Magazine and then the Woman's Day ran an article about it. My bikini body was everywhere, and the response was nothing but positive.
From that moment on life in general got a whole lot happier. Not only because I had forged a new relationship with my body, but also because I had unexpectedly started saying yes to a whole heap more. I didn’t realize how much my attitude to my body was mirrored in my attitude to life. Tens of thousands of people had seen my thighs and somehow I was no longer terrified. Choosing to feel confident in my body helped me to move forward to do things I’d always wanted to do, I just needed to say YES!
With this new-found confidence, I quit my corporate job and bought a ticket to Cambodia to volunteer with a local rural NGO. I would be living and working in a rural commune training local young women to be trainers for GEP, a social enterprise that empowers women by providing education and eco friendly sanitary kits. It was important to me to take a step back from my normal life and put my whole self into a project that would rapidly empower women in an environment with little opportunity. Seems pretty extreme right? But this had been a life long dream of mine and I’d just said yes.
Right before my hurried departure, and with my new found confidence (and encouragement from my friends) I decided to send my photos from the swim shoot (including a selfie) to the top three modelling agencies in NZ. I just couldn't believe it when Unique Model Management asked if I’d come in to meet them. Before I could take the whole experience in, they signed me on as a commercial model! Quite a change from "But people will see my thighs!!!"
Two days later I departed for Cambodia to embrace a new adventure, and a very changed me!
I owe a huge thank you to the supportive women around me, especially Monique for asking a small question that made a big difference, and Rachel Cox for being an inspiring friend.
When I heard about Generation, Education, Period I immediately had to come to Cambodia. Never had it occurred to me for a moment that struggling to manage a period could put a woman's education at risk. We have the privilege of options. Here in rural Cambodia, many don't even have access to toilet paper.
Generation, Education, Period (GEP) is a community project of Green Umbrella's and also a social enterprise. My friend Margo Marks started the project a few years ago after seeing first hand how women in the village struggled to continue with school and work each month. Stigma, mountains of misinformation, and little education made the problem worse.
GEP not only educates women about menstruation but also produces reusable eco friendly sanitary kits locally. The production keeps two local women employed full time, Sock and Sockheng. Making GEP sustainable is vital because it keeps the women out of the harsh working conditions of the local factories, 7-7pm, 7 days a week (H&M, Nike, GAP etc).
After successful delivery of workshops and kits to many villages, GEP has now caught on in Laos and recently Thailand. In Cambodia, we're ready to ramp up the activity, and that's what I'm here to assist with. GEP will soon have local women delivering workshops on puberty, periods and pregnancy (this is not taught in the Cambodian curriculum) and distributing reusable sanitary kits.
Word spread fast when we put the call out for confident volunteers. We signed up 30 young women (a few young men also) to become trainers. Most are high school students but they're 100% passionate about empowering women and their future. We facilitated a two day train the trainer workshop, including anatomy, reproductive systems, ovulation, menstruation, puberty and pregnancy. We made embarrassing topics fun with games, videos and cartoons in English and Khmer - when the room is full of laughter you can't help but learn !
You can read more about it in the article in Phnom Penh Post that GEP was featured in on 10 March 2017 !
The women who are now trainers will be delivering their first workshop this Friday. I wish you all the very best, your commitment to women to change their lives is a true inspiration!
And I owe a HUGE THANK YOU to everyone who contributed to my fundraiser in January 2017. You've supported many young women to help change the lives of many many more.
On my daily bike ride to Green Umbrella I take a lot of care as I cycle along the dusty laneway leading to Karuna Kumar School (KKS). Baby chickens and even puppies run out in front of my bike. I resist stopping and trying to save every single one.
KKS is a very special school, but it too can't pick up every child in the commune. Recently I've helped the school to make some improvements to the selection tool used to evaluate families for KKS. Although I pass by many family homes in the village that look to be in significant hardship daily, for some reason nothing created a more vivid picture of the living conditions until I started this piece of work. Our little chickens go home to almost nothing.
The government distributes identification cards known as 'poor cards' to families that are living in extreme poverty. These families often have no work, or those that do bring home little more than $1 per day. Green Umbrella often hears through referrals about families that are struggling to keep their young children in school or send them at all. During a home visit they are assessed based on their materials and possessions. Is your floor made of dirt ? Your fence made of sticks, your walls made from palm leaf ? Do you own a bicycle or a moto ? Do you own a cow? Do you go to the toilet in the field ?
Just one child can be selected from each family.
The aim is to break the poverty cycle that their family is in and give these children a great education where they over wise may have received nothing. The children are fed breakfast and lunch at school, and you can visibly see the difference between their enrolment photo and today. Their eyes are brighter, their cheeks are full, they have confidence.
Kim (name changed) is one of our brightest grade 4 students and has very good English. Although she is in a class with 9 year olds, Kim is actually 12. Kim has 3 siblings and lives with her grandparents as her father is in prison and her mother left them for Thailand. Kim was enrolled in KKS as her mother could not afford to send her to school. Instead Kim picked snails in the field for the family to eat. Kim is catching up at school very quickly and her attitude toward education and her community has changed dramatically. Sadly, Kim is now sorely missed by her classmates, as her and her sister were abducted by a driver promising to take them to their mother in Thailand. I hope that Kim and her sister can be returned to her grandparents safely, and that this will not the end of her education.
I've received a stack of heart warming feedback from friends and family about how proud they are of me coming to volunteer in Cambodia. Each comment makes my heart sing, yet I'm left with an odd feeling...imposter syndrome perhaps ? Yes, working here is fulfilling. Yes it is HARD work and the days are long (it's no holiday). Yes I'm working not just for free but also at a financial cost to me. Yet I feel that I really don't deserve the congratulations...the Cambodian's do.
From high school I've had a fascination with Cambodia. Cambodia is a place that's easy to love because the people give you so much back in return. They are dedicated. They want to learn. They appreciate anything you can offer. Feeling proud of yourself after teaching a 4th grader why it's important not to buy plastic? Think again, he's already off telling five 3rd graders all about it! Your pride is now transferred to him.
You'll find more NGO's in Cambodia than anywhere else in the world. I've discovered that everywhere you go in this country there is an NGO for this, a social enterprise for that. In fact as a tourist you'd have to go out of your way avoid them. Everyone here wants to give back to their community. After all they're making their comeback. During the harrowing genocide under the Khmer Rouge, all identity, capitalism, learning and love was destroyed. Only work and death remained. Epic Arts (Kampot) is a wonderful NGO that supports disabled youth with performance art. (watch the video!) Most of the performers are deaf or have other disabilities. The performance was inspirational, especially as the majority of them rely on the beat they feel through the floor in order to choreograph their moves. This NGO has turned their lives around to be some of the most positive people I've ever met.
Cambodian's are working hard to come back brighter.
Kids in Cambodia attend bleak schools with virtually no resources. At the local (public) school in our village the equivalent of just $US4 is allocated per student per year. The class rooms have dirt covered floors, no ceiling fans and no books. The toilet blocks are locked because the school has no budget to maintain them (kids ride home to use the bathroom). Despite having to learn in these conditions, the kids are determined to learn. They understand that they must learn and they must give back to their community. Their alternative is to work in the factories or in the field, living off $1 per day perhaps forever.
Despite the learning conditions, they persist by going to school at 7am with a 4pm finish. English classes then start from 4.30pm. These classes are all facilitated by Green Umbrella (some older high school students teach english too). In fact, many of the teachers from Green Umbrella that teach at KKS (private school) teach all day, then take a english lesson from us (teach the teacher), they then scramble over to the public school to teach English themselves ! Keen students stay for another class called Global Perspectives or they go play football (local kids only learnt about football 9 months ago by the way). The kids even go back to school on a Saturday! There is such little time to squeeze in new classes, any additional Green Umbrella workshops have to be run on a Sunday.
Cambodia is catching up on lost time. We're simply supporting them on their journey to come back brighter.
At first I thought the boarding house was grim and prison like. Ok it still is sort of comparable to a prison, but now I feel at home.
We turned off the main highway and proceeded for about 3 km down a dustpan of a road. There were clouds of dust with rubbish everywhere, pot holes, jagged rocks and small piles of smoulding house hold trash lining the street. The road is almost constantly enclosed in a cloud of dust and smoke. The further we got down the street the less developed it became. Eventually we hit a smooth pad of concrete and turned left at an entrance guarded by two white elephants.
I would be living for the next month at the pagoda in a boarding house for volunteers. The pagoda is also the home of around 15 monks (some as young as 10), nuns that look after the monks, and other poor marginalized families that have the permission of the abbot (head monk of the pagoda) to live on the commune.
The boarding house has 6 simple bedrooms with iron bars connecting the walls to the ceiling with bars covering shutters. There is one sheet, one pillow, one mosquito net and one overhead fan (your own over head fan is considered an absolute luxury). One bathroom each for boys and girls with a cold shower. When the water runs out you wash yourself using a bucket of water and a saucepan (this happen frequently due to power cuts). I've been told the shower heads are recent improvements, as the monks felt we could make do with a bucket like they do.
The little monks are beautifully dressed in their vibrant orange robes. Each morning at 6am they rise to sweep pagoda of leaves from the previous day. It's a nice way to wake up.
One evening the young monks sheepishly walked into the boarding house to ask us a question. Although this is allowed, it wouldn't usually happen as often we will wear shorts and singlets inside which isn't appropriate for the conservative required for the pagoda, or in fact anywhere in Cambodia where respect should clearly be shown. Thinking they must have vital information we all paid close attention to their arrival...turns out they just needed a iPhone charger...teens are the same everywhere !
My favorite building on the pagoda, now used as the sewing room for the GEP project was once used by the Kymer Rouge for the torture and execution of local villagers. We were puzzled as to why there was nothing to commentate the many victims that died there. The response was that there are just so many sites like this, we can't do it for every building.
The heat is punishing. Although not the hottest climate I've been in (averaging around 40 degrees after midday) its incredibly dry and the heat takes the life out of you after lunch. All activity stops and you more or less can't function for at least an hour and half. If you're lucky the temperature might drop to 30 just in time for dinner, although by that stage you're falling asleep in your bowl of rice.
My little cell is now my haven. Each evening I look forward to crawling into my mosquito free zone and passing out before 8.30.
Britomart...it used to be a carpark, now it's the place to be seen. I've worked in this area of Auckland CBD for the past 7 years and have loved every minute working in this evolving precinct.
I work in a vibrant new office, with funky breakout areas, lovely people and all the benefits. Despite all this, something last year was bugging me and everyday I wondered, 'can I quit?'
I've worked hard over the last 10 years to carve out my dream corporate career, and I'm proud of it. But the feeling stuck. I searched high and low for new work - nothing interested me. Recruiters invited me for interviews - I turned them down. This continued for months
All of this ended just 5 minutes ahead a major presentation in front of the executive team. I got a text message, it told me about volunteering in Cambodia, and I said YES.
In an instant I was completely overcome with relief, walked in to make my presentation and nailed it !
This February I'll be travelling to Cambodia to volunteer for Green Umbrella and will stay on the NGO's commune about an hour outside of the capital, Phnom Penh. There I'll be working specifically with a new not-for-profit called G.E.P or Generation Education Period.
GEP empower girls and women in poverty in Cambodia and Laos by educating and providing reusable eco-friendly sanitary kits.
It had never occurred to me for a moment that women all over the world could not only have no access to any sanitary supplies what so ever, but also have very little understanding of womens health and menstruation. I simply can't wait to get started and do what I can support Cambodian women to stay in school and not miss out on work every month.
Only a few more days left of work and the big corporate for Cambodia swap will be begin.
Here are the words
I take a few pictures too