Written By: Jessica Stokes
Can I be painfully honest with you for a moment?
I struggled to write this blog post. Sorry, agonised might be more accurate. I didn’t know how or where to start describing the life-changing experience that was the inaugural UN Women Australia Ride for Rights 2016.
Ride for Rights was a 12-day challenge cycling around 360km from Vietnam to Cambodia in an effort to raise money to empower women and girls to break the cycle of poverty and violence. As a team of 26 women we raised more than $129,000 (the biggest Australian fundraising event ever) for UN Women projects working to advance the rights of women in Southeast Asia from climate change sustainability planning, gender-based violence prevention and financial empowerment programs. It was an extraordinary experience and one that I will never forget.
It was hard accepting that the challenge was over and I suffered from the dreaded post-adventure blues when I arrived home in Perth. Exhausted and overwhelmed with emotion I found it impossible to sum up all my reflections from the experience in a single blog post. But the wise words of Sheryl Sandberg (CEO of Facebook) echoed in my mind, “The time is long overdue to encourage women to dream the impossible dream”.
Even though my Ride for Rights adventure was over I realised my journey spreading awareness of the fight for women’s empowerment had just begun. Time to encourage others to dream big and transform their lives by joining the Ride for Rights 2017 adventure through Northern Vietnam.
Below I’ve pulled together my top seven reasons why you should ride for women’s rights in 2017 generated from my personal experience. I hope these will encourage newcomers to the world of women’s adventure and travel to step off the edge and dive in with confidence and conviction.
Want the 7 reasons? Read on:
1. You will discover the joy of selflessly giving to others
During Ride for Rights I was reminded how utterly rewarding it was to give my time for free to a good cause. UN Women wants to achieve planet 50/50 by 2030. This is a simple idea to achieve a planet where men and women will be equal. It will also be a more prosperous, healthy and peaceful planet because when you empower a woman you empower a nation.
Working with UN Women I felt part of history as I cannot imagine any cause that is more critical for the wellbeing of the world than ensuring that boys and girls and women and men are able to grow up and live with dignity with peace and with equality. There are countless people living in this world unable to break free from oppression. UN Women embraces the principle that equality is what is going to make the world sustainable. In Vietnam it is estimated that 70% of the population are exposed to the risks of natural disasters. Natural disasters disproportionately affect women, and gender inequality places restrictions on women’s access to disaster risk reduction and response planning activities.
Whilst in Vietnam our group visited the An Nhon commune in the Dong Thap province, where UN Women have partnered with the Vietnamese Women’s Union and the Committee for Natural Disaster Prevention to strengthen women’s capacity in disaster risk reduction to cope with climate change. The An Nhon commune is located on the banks of the Hau River and is susceptible to flooding due to its location. As a largely agricultural community the residents are some of the worst affected by climate change. To help women increase their earnings and have access to a more sustainable income, UN Women established a women’s cooperative, making and marketing water hyacinth reed baskets and introducing climate friendly crops to the communities. I met many inspiring women who talked about how the cooperative supported them to build their skills, earn an income to support their families and gain business confidence.
Seeing the life-changing work made possible by UN Women funding made me realise the importance of giving without receiving and it was a completely sobering experience.
By joining Ride for Rights 2017 you will witness first-hand how your fundraising is making a tangible impact, through grassroots programs and policy work. Strong people stand up for themselves, but stronger people stand up for others.
2. You will meet and be inspired by extraordinary people
In Phnom Penh we visited the UN Women Cambodia office and met with many people working hard to build brighter futures for women and girls in their region. Wendy Kusama, Country Director for UN Women Cambodia, spoke to us about UN Women’s work ending poverty and advancing women’s human rights in a place with so much need and opportunity.
Wendy told us “Life is a river with water rushing at you. Step into it and keep your values and the more people who stand with you in the river the more change you can make to the course of the river and disrupt its flow. Every action we take to advance gender equality and women’s human rights will have a ripple effect.” We were told that thanks to our support, UN Women Cambodia has launched various initiatives that take a long-term view to advancing gender equality particularly focusing on domestic violence and labour laws.
UN Women Cambodia also works with numerous youth activist groups and our team was lucky enough to engage in an informal dialogue with representatives from ActionAid who are working hard to foster change within their communities. I was particularly inspired to hear about the work being done by youth leaders such as Srun Srorn, Founder of CamASEAN, a group working to protect human rights with particular focus on rights of LGBTIQ people. Sron shared his dreams of finding a solution to help all minorities in Cambodian society and explained that, “before you stand for the women you must know the women-such as those who we cannot see, such as the disabled, those in prison or sex workers. Changing cultural norms takes time, but we are seeing change.”
Young voices are particularly important because Cambodia has a very high proportion of young people, with more than 40% of the population under the age of 25. Seeing how Cambodian youth were being equipped with knowledge and experience to become future leaders has motivated me to continue being an advocate for women and a leader in my own community. By going out into the world and meeting extraordinary people you too will learn that the change is us- the next generation. The solution to a better future for us all comes from education, new ideas and an open mind.
3. You will create meaningful and lasting relationships
People you meet while on the road usually become some of the most valued ones in your network. These folks give you a glimpse outside your hometown circle of friends forcing you into new and refreshing perspectives on things.
I was excited with the diversity of riders who joined Team Ride for Rights. Riders included students, government workers, magazine editors, school teachers, grandmothers, international lawyers, physiotherapists and many others. Some had family connections to the region; others had visited before, whilst for others it was their first time travelling to Vietnam and Cambodia - this was me!
Despite our differences in age, backgrounds and location (some came from the US) we were united with a shared passion and commitment to empowering women and girls to break the cycle of poverty and violence. This created a strong and everlasting bond. I spent many a late night talking with my roommate Lizzie contemplating the significance of the trip and all the lessons we would take home with us.
The entire team was extremely supportive and cheered each other on throughout the ride. Each night we handed out friendship bracelets to team members who had done a stellar job that day (a beautiful initiative by our team leaders Ally and Pru). The emphasis was not on a competitive race but rather the biking experience itself as our senses were assaulted by the beauty of the world and the people in it. However I appreciated being encouraged by the wonderful Peta on the last day to lead the group as I had been hanging around in the middle up to then. I will never forget the exhilaration and pride hurtling down the rural road with nothing but red dust churning through the air in front of me. Or the time Wendy decided to lead the group in an impromptu yoga session to stretch out our aching muscles at the Vietnam-Cambodian border.
We were lucky to have amazing local guides from Buffalo Tours who were always there with kind words and perhaps more importantly energy drinks, water and snacks! To this day I love following the adventures of our guides Suy Vet and Yann on Facebook and consider myself privileged to have met such inspiring leaders in their communities who are focused on achieving sustainable development goals.
Our team was so impressed by the work Suy Vet is doing to promote the continued education of girls in the Knapor commune that we have each donated funds to a trust in a combined effort to support the Knapor Scholarship Programme. I love receiving emails from all the women in the team and I am truly thankful to have felt the camaraderie and love from kindred spirits and advocates for gender equality around the world.
The people you will meet on this adventure will motivate you and inspire you. Participating in this ride you too will create friendships, which will build your network and there is no telling where these connections will lead you. Since completing the ride I have been contacted by many people who simply want to connect and learn more about the work of UN Women. You too will inspire others to do something extraordinary for a cause they are passionate about.
4. You will broaden your experience and credentials
By travelling overseas you are exposed to different perspectives and become aware of the global perspective of learning and working and becoming an international citizen for future humanitarian work. As Australians we sometimes need to be encouraged to step out into the real world to our Asian neighbours in the north. We need to absorb what is happening in our region in relation to preventing gender based violence, funding financial empowerment programs and raising the profile of women and bring that knowledge back home. I learned so much from witnessing the harsh realities of extreme poverty in rural communities and will forever feel privileged to have a roof over my head, food on the table, shoes on my feet and unlimited access to further education.
I consider myself extremely lucky to live in Australia however you might be surprised that as a country we share many similarities in female inequalities with Vietnam and Cambodia. The numbers of elected females in the National Assembly sits at around 22% for Vietnam and Cambodia with Australia only slightly ahead at 30.5%. In Vietnam 58% of women will experience some form of domestic violence and in Australia shockingly it is 1 in 3 compared to Cambodia which is 1 in 5. These statistics show that it is in Australia’s interest to focus investment on developing programs combatting gender based violence not only overseas but in our own backyard.
Australia whether it likes it or not is inextricably linked to Asia through trade, education and immigration. Your future and Australia’s future in the region comes down to opportunity and opportunity comes down to one thing-access. By joining UN Women you are giving yourself access to the not for profit sector and increasing your opportunities.
So many of the world’s problems today are global and require a global response. By participating in international charity adventures you not only learn more about the country you are visiting, you also encourage greater cooperation between nations, which will help those challenges to be met with more confidence.
5. Your eyes, mind and heart will be opened
If you are open to it, travel will simply make you a more well-rounded human being. It opens your eyes to the beauty of this world and the people in it. Vietnam and Cambodia are two of the most enriching places I’ve ever travelled to with seemingly endless rice paddies, sugar palm plantations and small villages, truly a feast for the senses.
I experienced traditional Vietnamese life cruising along the Mekong Delta where farmers tended to their crops and water buffalo wallowed in muddy ponds. I refuelled on coconut water, bananas and mangos and took in the bright smells and sounds of the floating markets and the neon colours, lights and buzz of riverside town Ha Tien.
Crossing over the Cambodia border I rode through countryside villages spurred on by the excited local children who would run to the side of the road and yell “Hello” as we surged by. I feasted on fresh seafood and watched the most beautiful sunset over the ocean in Kep; a sleepy beachside village. After cycling 74 km in scorching humidity I gratefully accepted the hospitality of a number of families in the chouk communities who let us stop off at their homes for water breaks and trips to the “happy house” (bathroom). Despite not having much, the locals are always so generous and welcoming, always smiling and exuding such a positive spirit. The rest stops we took weren’t planned, meaning the families willingly welcomed us into their space, no questions asked. It was a truly humbling experience.
In Phnom Penh I visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum a poignant and sobering reminder of the struggles of the Khmer people. I met Chum Mey, one of a handful of prisoners who survived the prison, where more than 12,000 people were tortured and sent to a killing field by the Khmer Rouge regime. Imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge, tortured daily and seeing his wife and children murdered Chum Mey endured so much yet retained an inspirational resolve to never give up. In his book “Survivor” he wonders why he survived when so many didn’t and believes that it is his duty to tell his story so that the world knows what happened and so those who died are never forgotten. A truly inspiring man.
I climbed 700 steps to pray to the Buddha taking in the beauty of the temples and stupas erected on the top of Udong Mountain, once the capital of the Khmer Empire. I met women part of the Artisan d’Angkor initiative at the Angkor Silk Farm in the Pouk district. This was a project created to help the young rural population to find work in their home villages by providing them with high skilled trainings and a vocation from which they can earn a living. Generously Suy Vet took myself and a few others to Bayon Pastry School, which is a vocational training school for women who didn’t finish school and would like to learn a skill. The school provides them with accommodation, food and all the training supplies they need. Finally I spent two days immersing myself in the majesty and mystery of the Angkor Temple Complex, marvelling at the magnificent spires of the World Heritage-listed Angkor Wat and other temples. You can check out my photos from the trip here.
Perspective is a luxury when you head is constantly buzzing with a swarm of demons manifested from the crutch of familiarity and routine that comes from never travelling somewhere new. You have an insatiable thirst to know your world, which needs to be fed. You must trust your inner voice and give yourself permission to wonder, dare and dream. Travel wide and live deep.
6. You will learn who you are and what you are capable of
Ride for Rights with all the challenges it presents and opportunities let me discover who I am in a way only the road bring. It took me on the journey of a lifetime, physically, intellectually and emotionally. I was initially apprehensive about signing up for the ride due to the requirement to fundraise at least $3,000 (excluding travel costs). This seemed a large amount of money and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to rise to challenge. I decided to get out of my comfort zone and go for it anyway hoping that with the guidance of the incredible team at Inspired Adventures I would be able to execute a successful fundraising plan and raise awareness of the campaign and the vital funds for UN Women.
I was truly overwhelmed and humbled by the support I received from my network and was able to exceed my target raising over $4,500. Friends, family and colleagues donated their time, money and energy by making direct donations, attending my clothes swap high tea and Suffragette movie fundraiser and helping me sell chocolates. It was touching to receive support from such a diverse group of people, some of whom I had not been in touch with for some time. I learned that I must risk bold undertakings with uncertain outcomes knowing that there will be both high peaks and deep valleys.
Travelling overseas and connecting to nature is one of life’s few experiences that not only exhilarates the soul but also humbly grounds a person to the world that they exist in. By joining this adventure you can change the course of your life. You could be going through a quarter or mid life crisis brought on my a massive lifestyle change –such as a relationship break up- or it could be a build up of work, or the pain of living a life you don’t particularly like anymore. Either way this is your chance for big change right now. The first step in the long road of self discovery.
7. You will develop skills you didn’t know you had
It was extremely rewarding to meet the fundraising challenge head on however I was also apprehensive about the physical side of the challenge as we were expected to ride up to 80km on some days. I had bought a cheap bike earlier in the year to transit into work but was not used to riding long distances. With the support of my dad I started getting up earlier to train before work and going for longer rides around the swan river. I also met up with some fellow adventurers in the Perth area to train and stay motivated.
After all the training and preparation, the pure elation and pride I felt as I pedalled the final kilometre of the ride through the bustling streets of Siem Reap was indescribable. Knowing that my mind and body had the ability to carry me through dusty rides of up to 80km a day in 45 degrees heat and humidity was completely surreal.
It was my first time riding anything over 40km especially in these conditions and the selflessness of our Vietnamese and Cambodia guides and commitment to supporting us in completing the distance was amazing. I remember looking at myself each night and not recognising the dusty and dishevelled cave woman staring back at me in the mirror. The journey from Vietnam to Cambodia was extremely tough but worth it in every way.
Adventures that involve a challenge like this will allow you to really push yourself in ways you never thought possible. Active adventures have the potential to bring out the inner strength you have within you but often don’t know is there. You will learn to appreciate your body as an enormous force of power and might and that only the walls you build yourself confine you. Mindset is everything and by practicing you can optimise your performance in high stress situations. Adjust your mindset to get comfortable with risk and the absolute worst-case scenarios.
Power is making things happen without asking for permission and the ride will empower you to push yourself to accomplish things greater than you ever thought possible. By taking a risk and stepping out of your comfort zone you can actively train yourself to be comfortable with the idea of risk. You can use various methods such as affirmations and visualisation but taking on this challenge will have a bigger impact I can promise you.
Know that you are strong, intelligent, beautiful, confident, worthy and most of all capable of anything! And YES you can do this. Once in a while surprise others and yourself with how extraordinary your life can be. Don’t be paralysed by fear. Be the successful person you were born to be. If there was something called the right moment then this is the right moment.
There is so much to do there are so many battles to fight and there are so many courageous women around the world who don’t ask for much they just need that hand that will help them out of the dark. Everyone should join the fight. Join me and stand for gender equality and empowerment for women and girls everywhere. This is a mission we can accomplish together. Help UN Women achieve plant 50/50 by 2030 and be part of history. It’s up to you to make the dream come true and take the first step.
Do something extraordinary.