Monday, August 01, 2005

Men pedal for Asian women power

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Raphael Parker, right, and Jacob Richardson ride their bicycles in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) -- The two young American men rolled up the dusty street on bicycles, stopping at the feminist-run labor rights center to earnestly deliver a message they have been pedaling across Southeast Asia to spread: "Real men support women."

Raphael Parker and Jacob Richardson scribbled notes while former workers from a nearby garment factory gather round to tell how thousands of them toiled under tough conditions and then got scant compensation when the plant closed.

The bicyclists, high school friends from Cincinnati, took turns explaining their purpose: to teach people back in America about the plight of women in Southeast Asia -- "because we believe that real men support women," Parker said.

That elicited chuckles from some of the workers who apparently found the sentiment a novel one, especially coming from men.

The curly haired Parker, 24, who is fond of cracking jokes, started Tour for Equality -- a project that is taking him and Richardson, 23, over the bumpy back roads of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos to talk with local people and humanitarian groups.

They relay their findings on a blog, or Internet journal, whose readers include supporters around the globe, Parker said.

Their small organization, a partner of the Washington-based Men Can Stop Rape, received a US$4,000 grant from the Ford Foundation and other donations for the Southeast Asian trip.

"They have an inspiring and worthy project and goals," Tade Aina, a Ford Foundation representative, said in an e-mail. "It is indeed most gratifying to see young people think beyond their own immediate needs and want to work for social change and social justice."

Tour for Equality had its beginnings in a different field of activism: voter registration. During the 2004 U.S. presidential race, Parker rode his bike from New York to Florida, registering more than 3,000 people.

He said the experience taught him that a bicycle is a "good vehicle for social change," and a way to reach people who "don't read The New York Times."

After that, Parker rallied friends and family behind a three-month Tour for Equality bicycle trip around the United States to talk with children about women's rights and masculinity as they are in real life, distinct from the images projected by pop culture.

The group chose Southeast Asia for its next mission due to the region's serious problems with the trafficking of women and children.

The State Department recently put Cambodia on its list of worst trafficking offenders, citing its failure to combat severe forms of the trade -- and to convict public officials who are involved.

Many Cambodian women and children are trafficked into Thailand and Malaysia for labor and commercial sexual exploitation, while most male victims are sent to Thailand as laborers, the State Department said.

Parker said Americans become incensed when they hear about human trafficking.

But many still have to learn about it, chimed in Richardson.

"It's just so far away and you feel distant from that, so we're trying to ... help bridge that gap quite a bit, through mainly our Web site and visiting these organizations over here," he said.

The pair have had their tough moments. They were robbed in Bangkok, Thailand, unknowingly ended up at brothels that appeared to be guesthouses in Cambodia, and slept among pigs and cows on a stormy night when a kind Cambodian family took them in.

In Phnom Penh, the garment workers seemed impressed with their efforts. One woman called them heroes and models for Cambodian men.

But after meeting the garment workers and hearing about their difficult social and working conditions, including low pay and long hours without even trips to the restroom, the feeling was more than reciprocated.

"It was amazing to see the determination of these people who are in worse situations than I could ever imagine," Richardson, an aspiring music journalist, wrote in his blog.

He and Parker have been "witnesses to slavery," he added. "There needs to be a change and if they have the perseverance to do something, I would like to think that everyone reading this does too."

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