Image: Cambodian folk dance is performed at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle. [Image: Joe Mabel / Wikimedia / GNU Free Documentation License] (CC BY-SA 3.0)
In an effort to fight gender-based violence (GBV) in Cambodia, the Rotary Club of Edmonds Daybreakers announced they would join 13 other Rotary clubs to construct 350 washroom toilets across two Cambodian villages. The club is based out of Edmonds, Washington, a city 15 miles north of Seattle.
In Cambodia, where GBV is prevalent, a lack of sanitation and privacy in toilets has raised serious concerns for women and girls who are put in vulnerable positions when forced to bathe or go to the bathroom outside. According to World Bank data, 20% of Cambodian women aged 15-49 have experienced physical violence at some point in their lifetime.
In order to facilitate the project, the Rotary clubs have partnered with a local Rotary club in Cambodia and two Cambodian nonprofits. This will ensure all construction will be completed by trained Cambodian workers, who will also train new team members.
This is not the first project the Edmonds Daybreakers Rotary Club has supported in Cambodia. The club is also heavily involved in a separate project to construct 50 fresh-water wells in five villages in the country, benefiting an estimated 1000 families. Other Southeast Asian projects this Rotary club has also funded include a hospital upgrade and creation of a water filtration system in Thailand.
Rotary International, the umbrella organization for the volunteer service clubs, has served as a link between Americans and Asia since the first two Rotary clubs in Asia were established in Manila and Shanghai in 1919. Several of Rotary International’s key projects were first started in Asia. The organization’s famous international campaign to eradicate polio began with a vaccination campaign in Makati, a city just outside of Manila in the Philippines.
Another Edmonds-based nonprofit organization supporting development in the region is the SE Asia Foundation. The organization operates in Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar by supporting vetted grassroots NGOs, funding social enterprises and providing girls with scholarship opportunities.
Humanitarian aid like that of the Edmonds Daybreakers Rotary club or the SE Asia Foundation is only one aspect of the strong relationship that ties Washington state and Cambodia together. During the violent rule of the Khmer Rouge, Washington became one of the key destinations for Cambodian refugees, which now hosts a sizable population of approximately 21,000 Cambodian Americans. According to IIE data compiled for the East-West Center, ASEAN Matters for America/America Matters for ASEAN Publication, Washington also boasts a significant Cambodian and Southeast Asian international student population, with 15% of Washington’s international students coming from Southeast Asian countries. This is the highest proportion in the United States.
Cambodian Americans have made significant impact in Washington, especially in Seattle, where a majority of the population lives. Seattle became sister cities with Sihanoukville, Cambodia, in 1999, coinciding with the founding of the Seattle-Sihanoukville Association (Sea-Sih). The association is committed to strengthening cultural, health, educational and business ties. Sea-Sih has yielded numerous positive results including starting an optometry mission in Cambodia, as well as hosting Cambodian American art exhibits and informational exchanges about port management.
In July 2022, US Ambassador to Cambodia, W. Patrick Murphy, visited the local Cambodian American community in Seattle at the invitation of Sea-Sih. He spoke about US-Cambodian cooperation during the COVID-19 pandemic, on women’s health and on combating crime. “We are lucky,” Bill Oung, Co-founder of the Cambodian American Community Council of Washington, said during the visit, expressing his gratitude that the Ambassador and US government see the importance of Seattle’s Cambodian American community.
Alec Weiker is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a fourth-year undergraduate at Georgetown University studying International Relations with a double focus on the Pacific and National Identity.