On this International Women's Day, we wanted to give a voice to an inspiring woman, Tina Kieffer, who has turned her fight for women's rights into a life project and a source of hope for the education of young girls in Cambodia. This cause is naturally supported by our founder, Mélanie Huynh, who is deeply attached to her Asian heritage inherited from her father, who grew up in Cambodia.
With the Happy Chandara School, created in 2006 and sponsored by Holidermie and the AERA NOVA group, Tina now shares the secrets of a successful endeavor: turning her commitment and revolt against inequality into a brighter future for these young girls with a well-defined destiny.
It has been 15 years since you founded Happy Chandara, a school dedicated to the education of young girls in Cambodia – a commitment that has been a success. What is your perspective today, in 2021, looking back on the journey since the first stones were laid for this endeavor?
Tina Kieffer: "I founded my association in 2005, and we opened Happy Chandara on November 7, 2006.
Our main concern was the attendance of the girls. Being raised in an environment of extreme poverty, we wondered if they would be able to stay in school, especially as parents often send their children to work in the fields to supplement the family income. That's why we quickly decided to provide food and hygiene baskets to the families, as compensation, and above all, to allow the girls to come and learn freely."
We're talking about education, it's a positive thing, you can do lots of things, there's hope, always
But we were very surprised. Very quickly, the results were evident. These are particularly motivated students, coming from slums, who have a strong desire to learn. The families are also delighted, creating a virtuous circle. We never imagined that we would accompany these girls all the way to the baccalaureate. Today, it's 100% success rate, and the girls go on to university, dream of becoming doctors, architects, lawyers, working in embassies, or even engaging in agro-agriculture, in a context where ecology is at the heart of concerns.
On our part, we don't spare any effort in providing academic support: rich schedules, highly competent teachers, and no more than 25 students per class. Everything is done to stimulate them intellectually. I traveled to Cambodia last November to open a second home, as the first one was already full."
Beyond knowledge and education, what values did you want to instill in these young girls?
Tina Kieffer: "Indeed, my commitment doesn't stop at education; we wanted to have a holistic approach; otherwise, all of this wouldn't work. That's why we also opened a dental clinic, we have social workers who visit families, we help mothers, we educate... all this so that the young girls feel good mentally and have fewer worries about their families.
We even introduced courses on 'Opening Up to the World' (OSM): values courses. From grade 2, they learn about equality, loyalty, honesty, and as they grow, we expose them more to the world, to ecology. We teach them English, French. We have courses where they analyze news from TV channels like CNN or the BBC. On the walls of the home, there are portraits of great inspiring women like Simone Veil or Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, who fought against corruption. The working conditions are encouraging, sometimes even better than what you would find in France."
And for you, Tina, what values have these girls transmitted to you?
Tina Kieffer: "It allowed me to realize my desire for engagement. I have always been committed, I worked at Marie Claire, a magazine that is strongly committed. I was appalled by the condition of women and children in the world. All of this has given me answers, has channeled my anxiety about injustices, through the very act of working on the ground.
Today, I can say that everything is fixable. We talk about education, which is something positive, we can do many things, there is hope, always."
In the face of this global pandemic, how do you manage to organize yourselves?
Tina Kieffer: "In November, my deputy and I went to Cambodia. The conditions there are very strict, with a very tough quarantine upon arrival. So, I can't go back every two months as usual, but we manage to communicate with the teams via WhatsApp.
As for the girls, we gave them smartphones because the schools closed. The e-learning system that was implemented worked very well, with the teachers as well. Currently, we have reopened with a hybrid model. Half of the class attends school in person, and the other half follows the lessons remotely, and we alternate every other week. We have also added support classes."
Today, in Europe and around the world, the commitment to women's causes seems to be changing things in our societies. On this International Women's Day, we can indeed see that a movement for female empowerment is underway. Have you noticed a similar dynamic in Cambodia?
Tina Kieffer: "Yes, we strongly feel that current. The girls are very aware of all this. Spontaneously, they even hung a portrait of a Cambodian influencer on the wall. During our visit, a little girl said on her own: 'She is very important to us because she is the female figure of Cambodian women's sexual liberation,' a subject that was very taboo in Cambodia until recently. So, there is a real speaking out."
Do you have a dream for this association?
Tina Kieffer: "It's simple: to one day meet a major organization that can first ensure a future for our homes, financially, and then perhaps replicate the model because it works very well. Our home is a kind of laboratory. The idea would also be for the organizers to be young people who come from extreme poverty themselves because they are motivated and, above all, understand the problems from the ground up.
And that's exactly what is happening at Happy Chandara: all the girls want to break free from the mold, and at the same time, they all know what it's like to live in a slum. So, they are even more impactful!"