Elyse Lightman Samuels Qualitative Data Analyst, Grants

Elyse Lightman Samuels is the Executive Assistant/Program Associate for the VP for Programs. She launched and edits "Letters from the Field," which shares stories and interviews from the field. She holds a MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University.

Posts by Elyse:

On “The Art of Listening”

A group of women with disabilities and mothers of children with disabilities in northern Uganda exchange stories with AJWS staff and AJWS's grantee, GUWODU.

Henning Mankell’s December 10th New York Times Op-Ed “The Art of Listening” is a thoughtful examination of the role of storytelling in human nature. In many ways, storytelling, and the authentic listening that accompanies it, is a lost art in our sped-up, Twitterized culture.

At AJWS, authentic listening is at the heart of our approach to grantmaking. We hold the perspective that our grantees are best positioned to know their needs and the needs of the communities they serve. It is our job to listen to them so that we can support them most effectively. Read More »

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Abigail Disney’s “Women, War and Peace”

“Landscapes that were absent the female.” This is the way Abigail Disney saw war-affected countries being depicted in the mass media. She had an eerie feeling of, “where are the women?” They were there; they just weren’t “in the frame.”

This past Friday, several AJWS staff members joined a public conversation with Abigail Disney about her new PBS five-part mini-series, “Women, War and Peace,” which will air Tuesday nights, beginning on October 11th. AJWS has long focused on advancing the status of women in the developing world (see our policy paper “Empowering Girls to End Violence: On-the-Ground Lessons from India for U.S. Development Policy” and our most recent issue of AJWS Reports), so it was a rare treat to learn from someone whose work deeply complements our own.

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Interview with Navin Moul, AJWS Program Officer for Asia

I recently caught up with AJWS Program Officer Navin Moul who just returned from a trip to Thailand and Cambodia where she witnessed the struggles and successes of the communities that AJWS supports.

Can you tell me about some of the main issues you looked at during your trip to Cambodia and Thailand?

A lot of our work in Thailand has to do with community land titles. I was able to go to villages and talk to people about the issues they have around land—such a complex, layered issue with legal regulations, livelihood issues, sustainability, organic, non-organic, community engagement and empowerment. One of the organizations we work with is the Sustainable Development Foundation. They had mapped out the northern part of Thailand and the land designated as conservation or wildlife land, and where it overlaps with community land—where communities have been living for generations. They showed a progression over the past five years. You could see the physical shrinkage of these lands. They use this when they do community meetings with government and local officials, so [the land shrinkage] is not in your imagination, and it’s not only happening to you—it’s quite powerful.

How are land issues similar or different between the two countries?

The land movement in Thailand has been going on for at least 30 years. Villages and communities have been organizing against what’s happening around them—big agro-business displacing people, or the government displacing people and reserving land for protected forest. There are a lot of accusations that people who live in the forest ruin the land. The villagers are trying to prove the opposite—it’s because of the work they do that there’s not more deforestation, because they’re there to monitor it. They realize that their livelihood comes from the forest, so they don’t want to damage it.

In Cambodia, in Ratanikiri [Ed. Note: a province in the northeast], we met with two organizations that work around a dam that is going to be built on the Sesan River. Right where three rivers hit the Mekong is where the government proposes to build the dam. Apparently they’ve done an environmental impact assessment, but didn’t really get community input. I was talking to the director of 3SPN [3S (Sesan, Srepok and Sekong) Rivers Protection Network] who said half the people don’t really read it; it’s just something to do so the [government] can say they [conducted an assessment.] The government can say, “See we’ve talked to people and the benefits to the country are much greater than the risks or negative impacts.” It depends on who you talk to. People who live in that community will not actually benefit from the power source. You’re talking about villages with no running water or electricity. People are actually displaced from their land too. These villages are completely remote. Ratanikiri is seven hours from Phnom Penh and the roads aren’t great, and then you have to drive another two hours on a road filled with potholes. And then you go into these little huts with no running water or electricity. I don’t know where the schools are. Often, there aren’t any young people because they leave to make a living.

The village we went to see was right next to the river. They made lunch for us, and the fish they caught were tiny little fish. I was surprised—I thought the fish would be abundant, but there aren’t many fish left because of the dams built upstream, which affected the cycle of the fish and [created] flooding that happens irregularly because of the dams.

The next day we went with the Highlander Association (HA), which works on land rights. Both organizations work with indigenous folks. At one village we had a community meeting—it was an emergency meeting called the day before. Someone had come in to say, “We are going to relocate you, this is someone else’s land now; we’re planting rubber trees and building roads.” HA was strategizing with the group about what they could do. As we were talking, a police officer came in and said, “Can I sit here and listen?” We said, “Yes, you can sit here, but you can’t say anything, we’re having a meeting.” Then he left, and another police officer came and said, “We want you to sign this because we want to know who was here.” HA said, “No, we’re not going to sign anything, we’re just having a meeting.” We looked out the door and there were three more police officers standing there. The ability to assemble around this issue is so contentious. We were in the middle of nowhere; I don’t know how [the police] knew we were meeting.

Some of the stories are heartbreaking. People say, “I’ve been here for 60 years. If you take my land away, I have nothing to leave my children. You’re basically pushing me off this land and I will die; you’re killing me.” Land is the essence of livelihood in Thailand, in Cambodia. If people don’t have land to work on, they really have nothing.

Fortunately we have these organizations that are doing really great work. What came across was a lack of education of what people’s rights are. They didn’t know they shouldn’t sign these papers. A lot of these people don’t speak or read Khmer because they’re indigenous. Someone in uniform comes and they don’t know better.

It appears to us (Jenna, Thida and I) that the work around land rights in Thailand has progressed a little more [than it has in Cambodia], and we would love to do a partner exchange with organizations in Thailand and Cambodia. The Cambodian organizations would learn so much from the Thai organizations. It might lift up their spirits too to see what has been done in the Thai movement. I think Cambodia can achieve some of that too.

What is the climate like in terms of people being afraid, or receiving threats for the work they do?

In Thailand, people are dissatisfied with the government and everything that’s been going on politically. People don’t feel threatened by the government in the same way that they do in Cambodia. The executive director of HA is an indigenous woman and has received many threats for her work on land rights with the indigenous community. They come to her house. At first they tried to bribe her to get her to work with the government. She said no, but has been very fearful. She never travels along. She’s very outspoken. She is afraid, but said, “I don’t know what else to do. I have to keep on doing this, and be as loud as possible, so that if anything happens to me it won’t go unnoticed.”

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Catching Up in Cambodia with Thida Yan

I recently caught up with Thida Yan, AJWS’s in-country consultant in Cambodia, to learn about what’s happening on the ground. Here’s what Thida had to share:

 

How many grantees does AJWS have in Cambodia?

We have fourteen grantees.

What are some of the themes we focus on in Cambodia?

We focus on land rights, domestic violence and human rights. The Worker Information Center, one of our grantees, works on garment factory workers’ rights. It has a center for workers where they can go to learn about the law. The Cambodian Women’s Movement Organization also works to promote women’s rights. It promotes leadership among garment factory workers. CWMO set up a women’s committee in the workplace for women to discuss problems. Garment factory workers usually come from far away and stay together in the city in an apartment they rent. Their rooms are small and they lack food because of their wages. Their health condition is not good. Sometimes they don’t understand about reproductive health, and sometimes their boyfriends are violent. The Cambodian Women’s Movement Organization provides training about leadership and critical thinking skills so the women can be leaders in their unions. Usually only men are leaders of the unions but we recently had a woman who became a union leader.

In July, I went to Kampong Cham for a public forum on land advocacy. There are problems related to public land. Some people say they have their own land that they’ve been on for more than 10 years but don’t have a land title. They want to plant vegetables or trees on their land, but they don’t feel secure because the government can take it any time; [the government] says people are on public land.

Can you tell me about the recent strike of garment factory workers in Cambodia?

They organized about 200,000 workers to get better conditions for their work and more salary. This was continued from another strike in August. They want $93 per month [Ed. Note: they currently make $61 per month.] Workers send about forty percent of their earnings back to their families. So in the strike they would like to request that the government put pressure on the employers to provide more salary.

What do you think are the most important issues right now in Cambodia?

Land issues and youth issues, because in Cambodia youth is dominant. [Ed. Note: over half of the population is under the age of 25.] There are other problems like unemployment, and people living in fear. There are many gangs, now not just in the towns but also in the countryside.

Why do you think there has been an increase in violence among youth?

In my opinion, because of low education and the influence of media. Cambodia doesn’t have intellectual property laws, so people just copy discs; they are easy to distribute. People don’t like to see the news but would like to buy a CD or DVD player, and it is cheap. Poverty is one of the root causes of violence: when people are poor, children don’t go to school and it’s easy for them to be influenced by their friends. Many reports say that girls in the lower grades, like eighth or ninth grade, are sex workers. They don’t have money, they have to sell sex. It’s not only the case for poor girls. Sometimes the rich families, they don’t care. The family relationship is low, so girls feel like they are isolated. So they are easily influenced by their friends.

Could you tell me about a success story?

We have a success story about migration. Our partners try to inform communities about migration. They train about safe migration; how to find out information about the company [that they would work for in another country]. We take information to communities about girls going to Malaysia and getting psychological problems [from abuse], for example, and some decide not to send their young women.

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