Naomi Neijhoft Naomi Neijhoft Naomi Neijhoft

Protecting children from violence and exploitation

In Alumni
Written by  Graziella Runchina Wednesday, 20 January 2016 15:23

Alum Naomi Neijhoft is a Child Protection Officer for UNICEF. She assists the Cambodian government in protecting children from violence, exploitation, neglect and abuse.

Neijhoft’s (30) job mainly revolves around the child’s right to protection. In Cambodia, she explains, the situation is disconcerting. “A recent study supported by UNICEF showed that at least 50% of all Cambodian children encounter some form of physical violence in childhood. About 25% face psychological abuse and one in 20 – boys and girls – are sexually abused. Additionally, many children are exploited, forced to beg on the streets, or needlessly separated from their families and placed in orphanages.” 

Intense and hard work

Neijhoft studied at UM from 2004 to 2009, receiving a bachelor’s degree in International Business and a master’s in Public Policy and Human Development. “The international nature of the programme really appealed to me. I’m glad I ended up in Maastricht – that type of education works for me.” After her bachelor’s degree, she went about choosing her master’s with purpose, eventually stumbling across the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance on the internet. “I’d been planning on moving to a different city, but the master’s programme in Public Policy and Human Development appealed to me so much that I ended up staying.’ This turned out to be a good choice, in retrospect. ‘It was intense and hard work, but I learnt a great deal.”

Developing country

Neijhoft became acquainted with UNICEF during her time in Maastricht: “A group of senior staff took a course at the Graduate School.” After finishing her master’s, she decided to start out working for a small organisation in a developing country. “That’s how I ended up in Cambodia in 2010, where I spent 18 months as a project coordinator. I thoroughly enjoyed it.” On returning to the Netherlands, she took up a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There, one of her colleagues mentioned the JPO (Junior Professional Officer) programme, which is supported by the Dutch government.

“I’d never heard of it before. I went to see what it was all about and found my current position on offer – a role at UNICEF in Cambodia focused on an issue close to my heart”, Neijhoft explains. “I didn’t think twice about it; I applied for the job right away and I’ve been here for nearly three years now.”

Perfect combination

As Neijhoft sees it, her master’s programme was excellent preparation for her current job. “One of the advantages was that we often had guest lecturers, field experts who could provide a different perspective on things. Together with the regular programme and the diversity of the students, it was the perfect combination to me. The programme also had a good reputation in the field thanks to the international character of the School of Governance and its partnerships with various organisations worldwide.”

Diverse and challenging

The Dutch government supports JPOs for a period of three years. “The idea behind the programme is ‘sow, grow, reap’. That certainly applies to me. I spent the majority of the first six months getting to know the organisation: the processes, the way of working, you name it. I’m still learning every day. That’s what makes this job so interesting. It’s diverse and incredibly challenging. The past three years have been one big learning process. It hasn’t always been easy, of course; some of the things you see affect you deeply. But I’m constantly inspired by the resilience of these children. That’s what it’s all about for me. You use real-life experience to influence government policy. One day you’re in contact with families, the next you’re sitting at the table with government officers. In that way I’m a sort of ‘spider in the web’.”


Looking back, Neijhoft is proud to have helped raise awareness in Cambodia about the problem of violence against children. “This kind of violence often goes unnoticed because it takes place behind closed doors, or because people simply turn a blind eye to it. That’s why it’s significant that the Cambodian government, together with UNICEF, sponsored a national study on violence against children. As a result, Cambodia is the first country in Southeast Asia with representative data on this topic. This is important because it helps us to make the invisible visible. The data enable us to address the problem with more credibility and foster concrete action to end this violence.”

Next step

With her contract at UNICEF ending in late 2015, Neijhoft is tentatively starting to explore the next step. “I definitely plan to stay abroad and continue working in this field,” she says. “At the moment it’s just a question of how and in what form.” In the short term she will head to Italy, where her partner – a fellow UM graduate – works as a consultant at the UNICEF Office of Research. “‘First we are going on holiday in Chile. I’ll have plenty of time then to think and plan my next step.”


Naomi Neijhoft (1985) studied International Business and Public Policy & Human Development at UM. She has been working for UNICEF in Cambodia since 2012.

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