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Women for Women Ohio (W4WO ) is a group of 10 area professionals--Sally Missimi, Stacy Yaniglos, Fran Gote, Suzanne Frank, Janet Dix, and Sharon Irwin from Kent along with Ruth Andrews (Hudson), Judy Hirschman (Stow), and Nancy Docherty (Streetsboro). Organized by Helen Gregory, who is retired from careers with Kent State University and then Western Reserve Academy, the creation of Women for Women Ohio was inspired by "Half the Sky, Turning Oppression into Opportunity," a book co-written by New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, that chronicles the plight of women and girls in areas around the world.
Among its findings are the revelation that two-thirds of the world's 781 million illiterate adults are women, that 70 percent of the world's poor are women and girls, that women earn less than 10 percent of the world's wages although they work more than two-thirds of the world's working hours, and that 75 percent of girls not enrolled in primary school are from ethnic minorities or very poor families. On the bright side, the findings showed that women reinvest 90 percent of their income in their families.
The authors also discovered one study after another showing the education of girls and women is one of the most effective ways of combating poverty, and this became the focus for W4WO. With research, the group linked up with the nonprofit organization Friendship with Cambodia, which has extensive experience in Cambodia and an excellent scholarship program.
Raising money for the scholarship program plus learning through study about Cambodia became the goal, and annually for three years Women for Women Ohio has had a variety of fundraising events. Success of those efforts has led to the development of the April 4-6 "Office to Evening" clothing sale at the Fairways.
Wanting to see for themselves the results of money they have raised and donated, five of the 10 women in the local Women for Women Ohio group, along with two husbands and a friend, late last year visited Cambodia on a 16-day journey at their own expense that took them into the ancient Southeast Asian country on a boat proceeding from Chau Doc, Vietnam, up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital.
In Phnom Penh, the women met their six young ladies from rural areas, all able to attend university because of scholarships that W4WO had provided. They visited apartments rented for the girls--small rooms without furniture, shared by four to six students, all sleeping on one mat. Cooking was done over a small, portable charcoal stove in each apartment, neither of which had a private bathroom. Bars were on the windows, and each girl's few possessions and a small duffle of clothing were stowed in the corner.
Despite hardships, the Cambodian women appeared proud of attending college and determined to finish their education. With the cost of living low, scholarships of $1,500 per year for each of the university students support expenses of living, transportation, and the acquisition of books and materials.
The W4WO group also toured Tuol Sieng Prison and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, a memorial to the Cambodian genocide undertaken in the mid-1970s by the Khmer Rouge, following the departure of the American forces. In the space of a few short years, the Khmer Rouge, seeking to remake the nation, killed an estimated 25 percent of its population, targeting the educated and well off. The Vietnamese, wary of Chinese expansionism and disgusted by the Khmer Rouge, invaded and drove them from power. The country has struggled since, far behind its neighbors, but is now stable.
After a short stay in Phnom Penh, a six-hour drive over a washed-out road bordered by rice fields brought the travelers to the rural Sandan District, where they were able to visit seven of the 11 students they are helping and the local high school. There they encountered a community of houses on stilts to provide security during the monsoons, water buffalo meandering along the road, and motorbikes puffing along with a variety of cargo that included live pigs.
Utilizing the services of a translator, they visited the home of one of the students, a one-room house on stilts, where the girl's mother told us she was proud that her daughter is able to attend high school and determined that her daughter will have a better life. The family's home lacked furniture, and cooking was done in the corner. One could see through the slats in the floor the ducks and chickens rooting around on the ground beneath. The visitors learned there was no electricity in the village, no running water and no bathroom. There are no local health centers. With transportation limited to bicycles or walking, several of the students who live far away must resort to living with relatives or friends nearer the school.
Despite the many challenges, Helen Gregory, the chair of Women for Women Ohio, believes that investing in the education of young women in Cambodia is worthwhile. "Educating these young women will change their lives for the better, and eventually the lives of others in Cambodia," she said. "They will get better jobs, marry later, have fewer children, and in many cases return to their communities to help others."
The group presses on, raising funds, studying the lives of Cambodians, confident their efforts will improve life in Cambodia. For more information, visit www.w4wo.org.