Girlguides unearth Gold thanks to their partnerships

Cambodia mission has ambitious plan, says Heather Penman

Heather Penman with some of the Cambodian children she helped
Heather Penman with some of the Cambodian children she helped

It’s a characteristically humid evening in Phnom Penh, the tarmac burns underfoot, and we’ve been playing an intense game of “cat-and-mouse” for 40 minutes. My Scottish blood is failing me; I retire to watch the ragtag group of Cambodian, Malaysian and British Guides and French Scouts continue, clearing the street when the odd tuk tuk rattles past. The scene is a far cry from stereotypical images of the Guides – crafting and singing in a damp hall. Scenes like this rest among my happiest memories.

I’ve recently returned from my second trip to Cambodia, as part of a Guiding Overseas Linked with Development (Gold) project. Gold organises partnership development initiatives between Girlguiding UK and its sister associations around the world. Over the past 23 years, Gold has taken more than 600 Girlguiding members to more than 30 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. The model has been adapted over time but the original core values persist: sustainability, collaboration, inclusivity and empowerment. The benefits from the Gold projects are shared by both women from the UK and from the host associations.

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Gold focuses on growing guiding and in turn empowering girls and young women through non-formal education and community work. Whilst Girlguiding in the UK boast more than 550,000 members, an impressive organisational structure and high public profile, many, including the Cambodian association, cannot claim the same. The shape of Girlguiding varies around the world, affected by differences in social, economic, political and cultural contexts. Mindful of these differences, Gold projects are adapted to fit local needs, incorporating elements of community development, and range from environmental projects to English teaching.

The aims of the project in Cambodia is twofold; to develop young women’s leadership and communication skills, and to promote the English language. The project is expected to run for five years delivering leadership workshops and English teaching classes. Faced with a different climate, teaching environments and linguistic and cultural barriers, training was often hot and tiring work. However, for all its challenges, the returns far outweighed the difficulties.

Experiencing urban and rural life through homestays truly enriched our experience. We gained a tentative insight into rural life in Cambodia and had the opportunity to forge friendships with our Cambodian counterparts – all young women with an amazing drive for change and thirst for adventure.

Working with limited resources required creativity and flexibility in designing and delivering training sessions. We soon learned that when it comes to engaging participants in a successful workshop, an open mind and bundles of energy go further than laminated resources and neat plans.

In Cambodia, Girlguiding is a small, under-funded and under-resourced organisation, but one which serves an essential purpose. In a politically volatile and culturally conservative country, challenging the mainstream can be risky business and Girlguiding is a rare girl-only, inclusive and apolitical space. Cambodia has real gender equality problems: sex tourism, trafficking, HIV/Aids and few LGBT rights are real problems for many.

Girlguiding is well placed to address these issues through awareness raising and community education, and the organisation has plans to do so through various new initiatives. To put these initiatives into action they need leaders and this is where Gold does its part.

Progress for the Cambodia project is gradual but tangible. Participants from last year told us that Gold trainings had strengthened their enthusiasm for Girlguiding – heartening to hear. Happily, I can say the same for myself; Gold has bolstered my confidence as a leader and traveller, simultaneously rekindling my love for Girlguiding, a movement I’ve been a part of since I was eight years old. It has expanded my horizons: guiding, worldly and culinary – deep-fried spider is tastier than imagined!

The beauty of Gold lies in the real benefits it brings to both women at home and abroad. That night in Phnom Penh playing cat-and-mouse with members of Girlguiding and Scouting from around the world was the moment I realised this.

Not only was it entertaining, but it also captured the spirit of Girlguiding and similar organisations – a will to change things for the better, without sacrificing fun and adventure along the way.

• Heather Penman, 22, is an assistant senior section leader with Girlguiding in Edinburgh