Who are the YEAY CHI? An interview with Mr. Vira from HelpAge Cambodia

Yeay Chi in the temples of angkor Wat. photography by: Paul Wozniak

Yeay Chi in the temples of angkor Wat. photography by: Paul Wozniak

Mr. TUM Vira is the Executive Director of HelpAge Cambodia, a non-for-profit organization that helps elderly people in Cambodia. HelpAge envisions a society in which all older people can lead dignified, active, healthy and secure lives. Mr. Vira came to HelpAge from a micro-finance background, and continues to lead the organization with a sense of duty and care. We had the privilege of speaking with him to better understand key challenges elderly people (and specifically women) face in Cambodia.

As a child, his family had a stall at Phsar Nat (central market) in Battambang. From a young age, Mr. Vira saw beggars, especially children and elderly women, at the market and empathized with them imagining his own family in this situation. He now leads HelpAge Cambodia to help marginalized, elderly people in Cambodia have access to resources, opportunities and support networks to help them lead good lives. We wanted to understand more about the elderly women with the shaved heads and eyebrows we see at pagodas throughout Cambodia. Here are the questions we asked him!

1. When do you become “old” in Cambodia?

Once someone has a grandchild, they are considered “old”

2. How does the Cambodian government and culture take care of the elderly?

Cambodia government enacted many policies to support the older people. More importantly, in the Cambodian constitution it is written that children ought to take care of their elderly parents. The responsibility lies with them. We should change this to legislate for older people's rights. Not all old people have a family that will support them. If the Cambodian Government adopts these policies, there will be less people dependent on pagodas (in principle). They must recognize the need to create the guideline. Data is missing though, and not representative of all of Cambodia. Currently the data we have only represents the North West of Cambodia including Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, and Siem Reap provinces.

3. What do you think is the future of old people in Cambodia?

The Government has made much legislation, including the National Ageing Policy 2017-2030, to protect older people. It will be great for older people lives if those policies and legislation are effectively implemented.

At the moment, there is very little social security, which means old people, in particular those who are not civil servants, have to continue work and do not retire. They are also often caregivers and take care of their grandchildren when the parents leave to pursue careers in a different city or country. They are susceptible to chronic illness. Without social structures to protect our communities’ most vulnerable individuals, they are left without much choice but to beg.

4. How does HelpAge help elderly people in Battambang/ Cambodia?

We primarily work in two main capacities:

  1. Policy formulation - We are in dialogue with the Government to help form legislation and implementation that will help the elders of Cambodia be taken care of with dignity. A systematized approach is needed to help the most vulnerable individuals effectively.

  2. Linking elderly people to associations & communities - we work older people associations (OPAs) that have the resources and skills to help them. A supportive environment is important to the health, income security, and wellbeing of our elders. For people who lost their families or are marginalized.

5. What would motivate a woman to join a pagoda?

The pagoda is a good place to protect their personal security. After middle age, if a woman falls into a situation of domestic violence or abuse or abandonment she may go to a pagoda. In remote areas, women would have less choice and select their local pagoda, but in cities they will select the “best” one. There is no limit on the amount of time they can stay. There also isn’t really a limit on how many women can come since lodging is communal. Staying in a pagoda usually needs permission from the monk.

6. What is the life of Buddhist women in Cambodia?

Women usually get more interested in Buddhism as they get older. They get more involved in spiritual life later in life. Pagodas become a form of social security and a place of peace. Women can come part time to seek refuge from domestic violence or abuse.

7. Who is a YEAY CHI? 

YEAY CHI are women who come to stay at a pagoda and help in its maintenance. These women are typically older, with little to no social security. They usually shave their heads and eyebrows (just like the Monks) and reside in the pagoda. 

8. What types of duties is a YEAY CHI expected to do/ ought to perform once she joins a pagoda?

Typically YEAY CHI help Monks with daily life: cooking and cleaning. They assist with chores and the maintenance and upkeep of the temple.

9. Do YEAY CHI have the respect that Monks hold?

Not the same. The monks are considered higher and respected regardless their age.

10. Are YEAY CHI schooled in the Dharma?

Not officially. They are self-taught, they teach themselves and can ask monks for help but have no scheduled classes or expectations of being sources of knowledge.

11. Who are the women who join a pagoda, and choose this type of life?

Women who are in some way vulnerable/ outcast:

  1. Lonely

  2. Domestic Violence

  3. Abandonment/ Widows

  4. No family to take care of them

People pity them. They come during a time of need. Some are not permanent residents.

12. What is YEAY CHI'S relation to Buddhism? Do you think they are spiritual people?

The shaved head and eyebrows shows a level of devotion and dedication to Buddhism. They are required to follow Buddhist principles and the pagoda code of conduct (no lies, no drugs, no alcohol.) YEAY CHI strictly follow the Buddhist principles and show a degree of seriousness about this life choice.

13. What have you learned about Cambodia by working in this sector?

I’ve learned the confidence of speaking to ministers and taking on more responsibility in the field of social welfare. We need to take initiative and speak on behalf voices that are easily silenced or missed. A pagoda should not be a place you abandon someone. We must call for our leaders to serve our elders.

Thank you Mr. Vira from HelpAge for talking to us about this important issue. Did this give you come more insight into the women that live at the temples? We hope so.