In 2013, I started my Masters in Development Studies and after some courses and a better understanding of development I decided to do an internship in this area. I already had a stable job I enjoyed at a research agency in Sydney, but I wanted to experience a totally new culture and the different working dynamics at a not-for-profit. I always dreamt of working for the United Nations and an internship was my best shot at making this dream come true.
The long and tedious process of applying for internship positions, writing cover letters and resumes became part of my routine. But eventually, after a few months, many attempts, e-mails and non-responses to my applications, I finally got accepted to work for the UN Women Cambodian Country Office in 2014. I was set to start the greatest adventure of my life, working in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia in the Women’s Economic Empowerment Programme. Needless to say, I had little knowledge of Cambodia, but the prospect of the unknown made the whole experience and journey even more exciting.
In preparation for the five month long internship I started to read all the books I could get my hands on about Cambodian history, culture, food, flora, fauna and places to visit. I also had to familiarise myself with the concepts of gender equality, empowerment and the work UN Women has been doing since the office was established in Cambodia in 2010.
The UN Women office is much like any other, there are Post-it notes everywhere and get togethers for lunch, but there were also weekly meetings to discuss projects and policy frameworks, workshops on career development and management skills, forums, events and a shared passion for gender equality. As an intern, I was exposed to a wide range of projects and was invited to attend meetings, working groups, field visits, training and capacity building sessions. I was also lucky to have a mentor during my internship and the opportunity to undertake research assignments on social protection and women’s migration, given my background in social research. Inevitably, gender equality and women’s empowerment became my special interest after the internship.
The everyday work at the UN Women office and the first hand living experience in Phnom Penh contributed to an enriching cultural and political understanding of the society I was briefly a part of. I had the opportunity to meet locals, international development workers, volunteers and other interns, and was inspired by everyone’s life story and the work in which they were involved. I quickly became a part of the expat community in Phnom Penh, where political, human rights and gender discussions over dinner and drinks were standard.
I was also mindful that local knowledge would give me the best insight into the Cambodian culture and society. My working colleagues would take me to local markets, traditional restaurants and badminton games on the weekends (a popular sport in Phnom Penh). I also tried exotic fruits and vegetables that were always shared at the office, and acquired a taste for ice coffee.
Today I have fond memories of my time in Cambodia. I’ve made some great friends, worked hard, learnt as much as I could and now I’m even more determined to advocate for gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Paula Simoes has over a decade’s experience in social research in Australia, Brazil and Southeast Asia. Her research skills cover all aspects of qualitative and quantitative methodologies and her work has been focused on compelling public opinion research, community engagement, policy, advocacy and international development. She interned at UN Women Cambodia Country Office in 2014 and is now finalising a Masters in Development Studies.