Washington — For Hang Ngo of Vietnam, her monthlong fellowship at the University of Montana was just one part of her training in women’s empowerment.
“We had the chance to attend many social events where we met empowered women,” she said. “[Even] the [American] women we met in the supermarkets — we learned from them. ... We learned about the volunteer work culture of the American women.”
Ngo, who is the senior consultant and trainer at the Center for Community Empowerment in Hanoi, spent much of her time observing the workings of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in Missoula, Montana, to learn how this nonprofit organization mobilizes women to work for economic and social change.
Ngo is among 42 women from around the world who are participating in the women’s empowerment portion of the Professional Fellows Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. In 2012, an estimated 450 participants from 49 countries will spend several weeks in the United States for intensive short-term fellowship programs focusing on women’s empowerment, the legislative process and entrepreneurial development.
Bunna Soseihak Nead of Cambodia said her experience with Girls Using Their Strengths— a YWCA leadership program for girls ages 9 to 18 — has inspired her to return to her work in Phnom Penh as the girls education senior program officer at “Room to Read” with the goal of enlisting the aid of volunteers. “In the United States," she said, “women will join groups to solve problems. I would like to work with alumni groups from universities and encourage them to share their talents with the community.”
All of the women in the women’s fellowship program said they see themselves as pathfinders for women in their homelands.
Soren Soeum, also of Cambodia, who works for an organization that provides free legal assistance to victims of sexual and domestic violence, said she recognizes the importance of her work with survivors. “I see myself to be a role model for my women [clients],” she said. “It is hard, but I am happy to do it. I am not just working for women, but for men as well. But changing patterns of behavior is not easy, but what I can do, I will do.”
For Sutada Mekrungruengkul of Thailand, her fellowship at the Montana House of Representatives taught her the importance of involving all levels of the community in putting women’s issues on the public agenda. In Bangkok, Sutada is the co-director of the Women’s Network Reshaping Thailand, a network of some 85 organizations in Thailand that deal with women’s issues. Her role is to encourage Thailand’s lawmakers to enact laws and policies that promote gender equality.
Gender equality, according to Sutada, is not a women’s problem, but society’s problem. Both women and men must be educated, she said.
“I think Asian women are not different from Western women,” Sutada said. “We are facing the same problems — to eliminate discrimination, to reduce barriers that prevent us from having our voice and making choices.”