Cambodia ~ connecting with First Step

For the last year, I have been developing the idea of a social justice initiative for connections of New Direction. This project will find its hub in our new JustUs Community website. This website will be a place where we tell stories, share hopes, concerns and needs, and join together in advocacy and support.

It is an initiative that focuses on our common humanity. Gay, straight, trans ~ the focus is not on our sexual or gender identity ~ but rather on our shared passion to work for peace, healing and hope. For too long, a reductionism that prioritizes gender and sexuality has limited the contributions of those with gifts, passion, and a voice for justice. The JustUs Community wants to amplify the voices of those who have so often been pushed to the margins in support of those on the margins.

That brings me to Cambodia to have the rare opportunity to see first-hand some of the projects that we hope to partner with through the JustUs Community. I want to be able to convey the work of these grassroots programs with honesty and integrity so that those who choose to engage will have the assurance that these programs align with New Direction’s core values to be respectful, relevant, relational, redemptive, hospitable and hopeful. I want to ensure that any project that I invite our contacts to consider advocating for and supporting is truly dignifying and humanizing to all recipients.

This morning I had the opportunity to meet with Alastair who is the Founder and Executive Director of an organization called First Step. Alastair is leaving for an important forum in the U.S. so this morning was the only chance we had to meet ~ and I went into the meeting hoping that my jet lag wasn’t going to impede my focus and concentration during our conversation.

Alastair is British and worked for many years in the U.K as a social worker. It was during his time in the U.K that he began to work with young boys and men who had been sexually abused. Six years ago, he came to Cambodia and began to develop the First Step project. One of the first things he did was a thorough research study entitled, “I Thought It Could Never Happen to Boys” which was the first study of its kind in Cambodia. Since that time, Alastair and his small staff team have focused on both prevention and care. In the area of prevention, First Step has developed a training curriculum for leaders of other non-profit organizations in Cambodia. This curriculum is a total of 35 days over the course of a year with a second year of follow-up. In the area of care, First Step receives referrals from other agencies and works with both victims and their families.

In our meeting Alastair and I primarily discussed the training curriculum and the experience of working with other leaders. They are currently running their second cohort and they are encountering tremendous systemic need for this training. Part of the dilemma in trying to open a subject that has typically been met with denial and silence, is that many organizations want to present a successful program and it can be difficult to acknowledge a lack of equipping and need for growth. Alastair and his team encounter a lot of defensiveness and slammed doors, particularly when they conduct risk assessments for organizations and point out weaknesses and gaps that need to be addressed.

In particular, Alastair spoke of well-established organizations in Cambodia that function on an institutional model. In these situations, children are cared for in the most efficient way possible for the staff. Rules and systems are developed in a way that primarily serves the needs of staff. As an example, he spoke of many abused children living together in a program. One of the rules was that children were only allowed to phone their family once a month. When Alastair questioned why this rule was in place – the response was that it was too much work for the staff to allow more contact with the families. In a child-centered program, however, it is recognized that a healing journey that involves the family (assuming the perpetrators are not family members) will be much more holistic for the child. We also spoke of the challenges of adequate supervision of children who are essentially wharehoused together and the risk factor of children becoming perpetrators themselves in such an isolated system.

But as leaders go through this extensive and well developed curriculum, they gain both the knowledge and practical skill to identify, engage and provide support to boys and young men who have experienced the trauma of sexual abuse. By focusing on multiplying themselves through training, First Step is make strides to dramatically improve the care of victims and survivors in a cultural system that is overshadowed by a deeply imprinted D.A.D.T (don’t ask, don’t tell).

I was particularly intrigued to speak with Alastair about the aspects of their curriculum that deal with sexuality. In Cambodia, it seems that the term MSM (men who have sex with men) overshadows the use of the term gay. In the Khmer language the term “ kteuy” seems to be a catch-all term for anyone who doesn’t fit into the traditional categories of male or female or heterosexual. In this primarily Buddhist context, there seems to be a general tolerance for LGBT people. However, Alastair also shared some horrific accounts of gang rape of men who appeared effeminate in rural areas. Understanding of sexual orientation seems to be very limited among the leaders with whom Alastair has been working. He spoke of developing a new section of the curriculum that would address this in greater detail.

It seems that a few years ago, a practitioner of reparative therapy wanted to come to Cambodia and do some training with a group of organizations of which Alastair was a part. Alastair was instrumental in discouraging this training and is one of the leading voices among charitable organizations (many of which are faith-based) to counter-act a change agenda.

While targeting a gay tourism market seems to be developing in Cambodia and there has been a Pride parade in Phnom Penh since 2004, Alastair described a lack of holistic focus in many of the MSM organizations. Many of them focus primarily (and perhaps exclusively) on HIV/AIDS prevention. This reductionistic focus can perpetuate discrimination and stereotypes about gender and sexual minorities. Alastair hopes that in the future he will have the opportunity to work with more of these organizations and through the curriculum of First Step encourage these organizations to take a more holistic approach to the reality of MSM persons in this context.

Despite some jet lag, I was energized and hopeful after my meeting with Alastair. He is a thoughtful and insightful man who is keenly aware of the systemic issues that his work through First Step exposes. He is committed to debunking the myth that the sexual abuse of boys is a “gay issue”. Yet he is also concerned that in the NGO (non¬-government organization) world, staff have a holistic understanding of sexuality and the importance of dignifying every individual, including gender and sexual minorities. I am very excited to be able to review more of the curriculum and to also connect with Alastair in the development of additional material around sexual orientation.

I encourage you to check out Alastair’s website: And I also pray that as we continue to share the story of the work of First Step, that your curiosity and passion will be elevated and that you will join us in