Youth Nutrition Champions make their voices heard in Cambodia

Youth Nutrition Champions make their voices heard in Cambodia

The emerging third phase of the SUN Movement, to be launched in 2021, places an increased emphasis on youth engagement. On this front, Cambodia is ahead of the game. Since 2018, Youth Nutrition Champions (YNC) selected and trained by Helen Keller International (HKI) have been using social media to engage with their peers on this subject and coordinating their views with policymakers. UN colleagues from various agencies have seized the opportunity to engage with these youth, contributing to the mounting momentum of the country’s Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement as it enters phase 3.

In 2020, two conferences were organized around youth participation in Cambodia’s nutrition agenda. These events brought together youth aged 19–29 for meetings in small groups with Government and UN counterparts. Both events ‒ one August and another in October ‒ were joint SUN Movement activities, with financial and technical support from the UN Network for Nutrition (UNN). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP) also took part, along with instrumental government focal points.

Photo 1- Chhun Bormey

Bormey Chhun, who works for HKI, participated in all the events as an organizer and spokeswoman. She is only 22 years old, but she is already savvy about multi-sectoral nutrition governance. In recent months, she has given speeches on nutrition at national and sub-national events and has moderated panels on nutrition for government officials, UN counterparts and other Scaling Up Nutrition representatives. She has travelled to Washington, D.C. for training in her field, makes nutrition-focused videos to post on Facebook, and is part of a team organizing an upcoming three-day nutrition ‘camp’ for her peers.

Chinda Thong is a 23-year-old chef working alongside Bormey. In a recent YNC Facebook post, he hosted ‘make breakfast with Chinda’. With an unassuming smile, he shows viewers first to wash their hands before cooking, and then he made a poached egg on top of sautéed greens and mushrooms before asking viewers, ‘What is your favorite breakfast?’ This segment is part of A Day in the Life series, tailored to address nutrition issues for youth who are quarantining at home due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Photo 2-Thong Chinda

Bormey explains how carefully the series was constructed to address real nutrition concerns of her peers. The youth champions at HKI collaborated with key partners, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), the Council of Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD), the EU-FAO FIRST [1] programme as well as UNICEF and WFP, to devise a survey for youth about how their lives have changed since COVID-19. Based on those insights, they developed ten questions for the survey, which they posted on Facebook, where they received about 100 responses from twelve provinces in Cambodia. Some disclosed that they were not eating well because the prices of food are too high, and they ate more noodles and fast foods. The responses gave Bormey’s team the raw material to develop A day in the life YNC video series. Each of the thirteen YNCs then made a video based on the survey answers. In addition to Chinda’s short, easy recipes, others have made Do-It-Yourself style videos. “This helps young people in quarantine to stay healthy,” she emphasizes.

Country Profile

While Cambodia has been ‘food secure’ for many years, it is facing many challenges to meet the nutrition-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. According to the Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), there was a nominal decrease in under-five wasting from 11% in 2010 to 10% in 2014 – the last time the DHS was conducted. However, some other indicators are worsening: anaemia for women of reproductive age, the number of women who are exclusively breastfeeding and diabetes for adult males and females.[2]

The diet of the average Cambodian is mostly rice and lacks essential protein, vitamins and other key nutrients ‒ an issue that Bormey and Chinda are trying to address through various conferences they participate in as well as social media. “This is a new issue in Cambodia,” observes Iean Russell, Senior Policy Officer for FAO Cambodia, who has been collaborating with the YNC. The conferences are integral to the national strategy for nutrition, where gender and youth are cross-cutting issues. “As we move to increasing issues with overweight and obesity, we need to recognize that youth are the ones making the choices. Women of reproductive age (28%) are hit hardest, but figures [among youth also] are growing,” he added.

Conference Activities

Despite the challenge of COVID-19, The Youth Assessment for the SUN Movement in Cambodia, was held on 13 August 2020. CARD and the SUN networks in Cambodia, including the UNN, sponsored the one-day conference to collect feedback as part of the Joint Annual Assessment (JAA) for the SUN Movement.[3] In particular, UN colleagues from FAO and WFP worked with representatives from GIZ to design the interactive group activities, covering a range of themes and processes related to the SUN Movement in Cambodia, such as gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in the context of nutrition. One of the goals of the meeting was to collect ideas and opinions from about 40 youth representatives by answering questions and taking part in activities that were understandable and interesting to young people. “We wanted to see how these activities tested with youth, so we could refine our activities,” explains Iean. “We didn’t want to lecture, but to engage.”

One of the participatory exercises focused on resource mobilization for sector-led priorities and joint priority actions. In this 20-minute session, youth acted as decision-makers to set funding priorities to improve nutrition at commune level. For each question, a table had to be filled in on a poster. The group was tasked with seeking consensus on the whole budget allocation before filling in the table as a way to emphasize the importance of discussion. Being able to articulate why they felt certain issues should come before others was an area of growth for the youth involved, according to Bormey.

Photo 3-Thong Chinda

A second participatory activity during the August conference examined SUN programming in Cambodia. It asked participants to decide as a group which three key recommendations they would give in response to questions such as:

  • “What are your recommendations for improved youth engagement in nutrition in Cambodia?
  • ‘How can youth gain more respect for their voice and opinions when it comes to nutrition and healthy diets? and
  • What are the key actions we should be including in the recovery plan for COVID-19 to ensure that nutrition remains a part of the agenda for recovery?”

The October conference, Working with Youth for Strengthening Food Systems for Healthy Diets, spanned eight provinces and hosted a total of 316 junior professionals working at non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and provincial officials, who met the youth age criteria. To gauge Cambodian youths’ current knowledge and interest in nutrition, CARD, FAO, WHO and other members of SUN networks worked in partnership, with funding from WHO and additional support from German Development Cooperation (GIZ). HKI also engaged through the participation of its YNC representatives to act as facilitators. The organizers designed activities that focused on food systems to facilitate discussions amongst youth and listen to their opinions. A third goal was to motivate youths to consider their own diets and to help their peers to do the same.

Of the two events, Bormey felt that the first, held at the Council of Ministers, had the most impact. “We worked with the SUN assessment plan for 2020,” she recalls. “That’s where young people had more say and could shape programs for the upcoming year and [conclude which elements were] more impactful.” The proximity of youth to decision-makers from Government, the UNN and other actors active in the country’s SUN Movement had a profound impact, according to Chinda and Bormey. It gave the youth a sense of how policy decisions are made, as well the value of their contributions.

One of the goals of the Royal Government of Cambodia is to ensure that youth are actively engaged in an effort to reach its SDG 2 targets for ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition.[4] The commitment to engage with youth comes from the highest levels of the government. This began in 2017, when The Samdech (Honorable) Prime Minister Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen instructed CARD to cooperate with the relevant ministries and institutions to set up the group of Youth Nutrition Champions. During the Seventh National Nutrition Day celebration on 6th November 2020, he further stressed the need to encourage youth participation in the field of food security and nutrition and promoted nutrition education for students through services in schools. ‘’We must mobilize young people to learn how to cook Khmer food and promote eating a variety of food through the traditional Khmer diet, using salt, sugar, oil and other flavour additives at an appropriate level and supporting Khmer food products that are rich in nutrients and safe,” the Samdech Prime Minister said at the event.[5]

“In the past, youth have not been given much voice, and we see that as something we want to correct,” Iean from FAO comments. The ultimate goal for youth is “linked to our national strategy for food security and nutrition, where gender and youth are cross-cutting issues embedded in the strategy. Our vision is to engage youth as a prime stakeholder and decision-makers in relation to their own diet and influence behavior change.” Ultimately, “to empower youth,” he emphasizes.

Hands-on Learning and Fun

Before COVID-19 struck, a prototype for the camp had already been tested by Bormey and her team of YNCs.[6] Activities were designed to appeal to youth as well as give them valuable skills to participate in nutrition policy. Tertiary students who are currently studying or show an interest in food security and nutrition, agriculture or food systems would take part in discussions with experienced staff and peers involved with food systems, go on field trips to organic farms and food processing plants and work alongside government, NGO and UN staff. The programme emphasized small group work, where participants will design improved food systems based on their field visits.

“Targeting mainly youth who are students is a deliberate decision in order to test this innovative approach in Cambodia and evaluate whether it could be a successful means to engage and raise awareness amongst the broader youth population. In addition, it can be expected that tertiary students may become more influential in the future to have a greater impact on Sustainable Food Systems,” Iean explains. The endeavor is an example of strong joint programming, with participation from CARD, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, HKI, GIZ, WHO, the EU-FAO FIRST Programme, UNICEF and WFP. It is also aligned with the 2nd National Strategy for Food Security and Nutrition (2019–2023).

Looking forward to the camp as well as other YNC activities in the upcoming year, Bormey notes how far the group has come already. “We have held many events, and I’m starting to see the impact of the programs. We are reaching most of the goals we set in 2018: to train young people and to establish national and sub-national networks as well. We are now working on establishing a national and sub-national platform for youth nutrition. In the future, I want to see YNC’s have an impact on their communities. We look forward to training more young people on the topics of healthy diets and nutrition advocacy. That’s our plan for the next year.”

Endnotes:

[1] This stands for the Food and nutrition security Impact, Resilience, Sustainability and Transformation programme.

[2] https://globalnutritionreport.org/resources/nutrition-profiles/asia/south-eastern-asia/cambodia/#profile

[3] Government of Cambodia, Youth Nutrition Champions, United Nations Cambodia, HKI and GIZ. 2020. The 2020 Youth Assessment for the SUN Movement in Cambodia: Guidelines for group discussion. Phnom Penh.

[4] https://scalingupnutrition.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Youth-Empowerment-for-Food-Systems-Improvement-and-Healthy-Diets_Cambodia.pdf

[5] Unofficial translation of remarks by Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia, delivered during the 7th National Nutrition Day (November 6, 2020): “Strengthening Food Systems for Healthy Diets.”

[6] Plans for the upcoming Youth Nutrition Camp, a three-day event for learning about nutrition and networking, have been put on indefinite hold due to COVID-19. Organizers from FAO, CARD and other stakeholders are waiting for COVID-19 levels to subside and/or the vaccine before they begin.

Photo credits:

Photo 1: HKI/Mr. Van Ponlork

Photo 2: Independent/Will Conquer

Photo 3: HKI