From Julie Dowse, Founder
We had been living in Phnom Penh for a little over 1 year. In reality this is not a long time to truly be immersed in a new country and culture, but we had experienced every emotion one could possibly feel in this short time. Pure joy, excitement, frustration, anger, sadness, happiness, determination, loss.
We loved our work – I was working in a large human rights organisation and my husband Geoff was working in various engineering jobs volunteering his expertise. We also were devoting our spare time to a little orphanage where we fell in love with 70 children who we believed at the time were orphans. Naively and unknowingly however, we had allowed ourselves to get caught up in what is now referred to as ‘orphanage tourism’. This orphanage was running a for profit business using vulnerable families to make money by presenting all these children as orphans and keeping them in squalid conditions. Not only were they living in these conditions and separated from their families but we also became aware that many of the children were being abused. It is still heartbreaking for us to think about.
Once we discovered this, we moved swiftly to report the orphanage to authorities, the orphanage was closed and the children were either returned to their families or placed in other safe foster homes. However, there were a group of teenage girls who for various reasons and challenges were unable to return home.
Those girls became the seed of AusCam Freedom Project. In January 2012 we registered our organisation, returned to Phnom Penh as a newly formed Charity with a vision and a sense of urgency.
Our first project was born – “TLC” as it was affectionately known (The Transitions Life Centre) - a home for adolescent girls who had little or no support, had experienced various forms of abuse, exploitation or were at risk and needed a safe home to live and thrive. Of course it wasn’t that quick or simple – navigating the bureaucracy in Cambodia is no easy task! However through many long hours of work and support from our Khmer friends we signed our MOU with the Cambodian Government (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation) as an International Non-Government organisation.
TLC operated from 2012 until 2016 and we cared for 18 beautiful young women and girls throughout this time. We remain in close contact with several of them who were from that original orphanage. Socheata graduated with a Bachelor degree in Accounting and is now a supervisor accountant with a large chain of coffee shops; Srey Leak graduated with a business degree and has a secure future with a great job within the construction field and Srey Nuch is married with a baby and has been working as a teachers assistant. We are so proud of all their achievements.
In 2013 after spending 12 months doing an outreach program in the red light districts of Phnom Penh, we recognised a common thread among the hundreds of young women and girls we encountered – none of them had an education.
Strategically we decided to create a new program and focus on identifying those girls who were at risk of dropping out of school to ensure they could finish their education with a new found hope for a positive future. The Freedom Education Scholarship Program for Girls was born in December 2013 with 25 girls. 5 of those 25 girls have recently graduated grade 12 and are in University. They continue their involvement with us by mentoring our younger girls, organising events and consulting with us on our programming. What an awesome achievement!
Today we have 145 girls on our scholarship program, we have 5 partnered schools and work in several others. In the last 12 months (2017-2018) we have engaged with 1,729 girls with our life skills and personal development workshops and had 187 girls attend our girls clubs in 4 of our schools.
We feel like we are only just beginning in our mission to empower girls with education, one girl at a time.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”