Master of Social Work graduates protecting children in Cambodia

Zoey and Lee Henley in Cambodia

Zoey and Lee Henley selling recycled soap for Children's Future International. They take used hotel soap, clean and sterilise it, and make it into new bars of soap to give to families for free as part of CFI's hygiene programme and to sell to tourists. CFI employs four families to make the soap, so they now receive a wage instead of being given rice, in a step towards reducing dependency on services.

Lee and Zoey Henley with Hor Sokhors from Children's Future International

Lee and Zoey Henley (wearing traditional au patt
shirt and skirt) ready for school graduation, with
CFI technical director Hor Sokhors.

Massey graduates Lee and Zoey Henley were looking for a new challenge – and they certainly found it in Cambodia.

The husband and wife team, both Master of Social Work graduates, are managing non-profit organisation Children’s Future International (CFI) in a rural area of the country, working to protect some of the region’s most vulnerable children.

“We were ready for something new,” CFI executive director Mr Henley explains. “We both had big government jobs in New Zealand – which we loved – but there was something missing. Social work has been good to us but we felt it was time to contribute in a different way and really test ourselves.”

CFI provides child protection, community development and supplementary education to at-risk children in Battambang, in Cambodia’s northwest, dealing with a number of child safety issues, including unsafe migration, potential entry to orphanages, underage sex work, substance misuse and family violence.

Mr Henley says one of the hardest things to adjust to upon arriving in Cambodia was thinking differently about residential care services, many of which are incredibly unsafe and often run as for-profit operations targeting the “voluntourism” market.

“In New Zealand, my biggest problem was finding ways to get children with severe challenges into a unit when their parents or carers couldn’t manage anymore. Now it's about keeping kids out of care, even when the parents want them in.”

He says he uses what he learnt at Massey every day, including how to do community-based research.

“Last year we had a social work student from New Zealand do a placement with us, and we completed research with her about service dependency and empowerment, which are pretty novel concepts in many developing countries,” he says.

“We recently presented that research at the International Federation of Social Workers conference in Hong Kong, where we received the Best Research Presentation Award, and have since published our findings in a peer-reviewed article. We couldn’t have done this without the skills I learnt at Massey and the fantastic support of my supervisors.”

Mrs Henley is CFI’s managing director and says the challenges the couple face are very different to those they confronted in New Zealand.

“The levels of poverty are so high, so there really is no comparison with New Zealand. The macro systems are so challenging. There is no national child protection system, for example, so it makes things very difficult in terms of identifying children.”

Mrs Henley, who was a qualified social worker for more than a decade before pursuing her Master of Social Work at Massey, points to unsafe migration as probably the biggest single risk factor in their work.

“Here in Cambodia people are sometimes forced to emigrate to other countries like Thailand to look for work. That often means parents leaving their kids behind. Sometimes the children are cared for by a relative or neighbour, but too often they end up in unsafe situations of orphanages,” she says. “CFI tries to intervene and provide support to parents before they decided to leave the country.”

She says her master’s has put her in a great position to succeed in difficult circumstances, and she would recommend Massey’s social work programme for anyone interested in addressing global inequalities.

“I was working full time at the Office of the Children’s Commissioner [OCC] so I did my master’s via Massey’s online programme, which was so handy,” she says.

“My work at OCC highlighted the limited ways that young people can participate in decisions that affect them, so I was able to explore this in my studies. I use this knowledge every day in Cambodia, where children are often ignored and excluded from important decisions. I can still hear my supervisors’ advice in my head today!”

The pair say they love being part of a growing and developing international social work community, where people are hungry to learn and open to thinking differently. Mrs Henley says it means they have a chance to “address some of the unintended consequences made in our Western systems”.

“That is not to say we will be successful,” she explains, “but because we can’t rely on statutory services we need to be creative and come up with community-led ideas. These have a much greater potential for long-term sustainability and success.”

And as for living in Cambodia, they say they love the people and the friendships, but there’s one thing Mr Henley definitely will not miss when they eventually return home. “The heat. I struggled with that in New Zealand and here is actually hot, every day!”

Learn more about the Master of Social Work here.

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