While it comes as no surprise that the GAA touches just about every corner of the world, the role Ireland's beloved amateur sport plays in the lives of young Cambodian women is truly astonishing with Cambodian GAA clubs paving the way for women's sporting opportunities there.
In the face of a culture that frowns upon women in sport, Cambodian GAA club Cairde Khmer is providing teenage girls with one of few opportunities to get involved in local sports while changing the way communities look at women in sport. Unlike most Asian and foreign GAA clubs that rely on expats, Cairde Khmer is well on its way to having 90% homegrown players, born and thought in Cambodia.
Cambodia is a country where women are not encouraged to play sport, but many women have taken up the sport and developed a grá for it.
The club have been so successful that they've been invited to Derry for the GAA World Games in July. With travelling abroad a rarity for the Cambodian-born players, they've been speaking about how the 'lifetime experience' will broaden their horizons and show their families that sport provides excellent opportunities for women as well.
Off the back of the club's massive success, the BBC have profiled the incredible growth of the GAA in Cambodia and the huge social impact of the sport, in an article entitled 'The unlikely rise of Gaelic football on the fields of Cambodia'
Sovann ThidaAva grew up in the care of an NGO after being abandoned on the streets of Cambodia's capital as a baby. Despite not knowing much of life outside the NGO and always being encouraged to do Dancing and Art over playing sports with the boys, Ava took up GAA at 13 and has flourished in the sport since then. Describing her abilities club founder Ronan Sheehan said,
Her tackling can be quite rough. I used to take great delight watching grown women in their 20s and 30s asking the referee to protect them from this rampaging 14-year-old.
Similarly, her teammate Vat Sreypov always dreamed of playing sports but the lack of opportunities for girls meant she never got that chance until Cairde Khmer came into the picture.
I was not allowed to play football because my brother said it was not for women. Most women are not encouraged to play football in Cambodia. There are so many norms about women and how to behave - you are told not to walk fast and you should not be heard when you walk.
With Cambodian parents, if the kid can get to travel to another country, they are already proud. They don't say anything about me playing football any more....The positive part is meeting new people outside. It makes me feel more relaxed and light. It makes me feel less lonely.
For Sreypov even the trip to Derry is a huge opportunity and one that exemplifies the need for female sporting opportunities in Cambodia.
With any luck, the success Cairde Khmer are having can be replicated across Cambodia and even further afield to grow the game and get more people involved in the sport.
Photo courtesy of the Cairde Khmer Facebook Page.
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