For generations, women and girls in Cambodia were taught not to speak their minds or stand up for their rights. But step by step, and with the support of sponsors and donors, they are learning to stand up, speak up and go after their dreams.
Sela’s voice quivers a bit as she speaks. She is slight and girlish, in jeans and a V-neck shirt, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail and long bangs swept across her forehead. A large, black, practical watch overwhelms her slender wrist.
“I used to be looked down upon by others,” she says, through tears, as she sits at an empty table in the small Phnom Penh office of Kosal Cheam, director of Holt Cambodia.
Her emotion comes fast and unexpected, and the room goes quiet except for the whir of a fan. We hold completely still, listening to her story.
“My dad passed away when my mother was seven months pregnant with me,” she says. “When my mother remarried, I moved to live with my auntie.”
In Cambodian culture, it’s not accepted for a woman to remarry, Kosal says — explaining why this would cause Sela and her family to be disgraced in their community. Her mom also worked in a massage parlor, which is considered a lower-class profession in traditional culture.
“I can’t remember how old I was when I went to live with my auntie,” Sela says, “but all I remember is living with my aunt — not my mom.”
Her aunt worked as a housekeeper, and together, they lived in a rented room in Siem Reap — a tourist town in northwestern Cambodia that sits adjacent to the famed, ancient temples of Angkor Wat. When she was 18 years old, Sela and her aunt moved to Kampot — a rural farming community in the southern part of the country.
Although her classmates and community looked down on her and her family, Sela stayed focused. She did well in school — excelling in math and science. And when she graduated high school, she felt, for the first time, a real sense of pride. Some of her classmates who shunned her failed their exams and did not graduate. But she — a girl from a poor, disgraced family, who grew up without a mother or a father — earned her diploma.
She stood up for herself even though others tried to keep her down, and soon, opportunities started to present themselves.
Recognizing her potential, a Holt donor in the U.S. decided to sponsor Sela to continue her education. She would be one of 33 students in Cambodia to receive full tuition for four years of university through Holt’s university sponsorship program, plus English classes and a monthly $30 stipend to help cover her expenses. Sela couldn’t believe it.
“I never thought I could have this opportunity to continue my education at university … But when I got a scholarship, I felt I could stand up and have a new life,” she says, wiping tears from her eyes.
To study in Phnom Penh, however, she would have to live alone in the city, far from home. Her aunt worried it wouldn’t be safe and disapproved of her living alone in Phnom Penh — another lifestyle choice considered inappropriate for girls in Cambodia. She tried to convince her to stay at home in Kampot, a traditional community where few adult women know how to read or write, much less hold college degrees or work as professionals. But Sela did not want to pass up this extraordinary opportunity.
“I thought, I can be independent and take care of myself in Phnom Penh,” she says.
Courageously, three years ago, she packed up what little possessions she had and moved into an apartment in Phnom Penh — ready to start her new life in the city. Because her aunt refused to help cover her living expenses, Sela found a job. She enrolled in physics courses, and began working toward a degree in electrical engineering.
Now in her third year of study, she is just one of two women among 60 students in her cohort.
Once she graduates, she hopes she can design electrical plants. She also hopes she can help mentor and support other children growing up in poverty, especially girls.
“It’s a very difficult situation for girls in Cambodia,” she says. “Sometimes, they can stand up by themselves, but because of the environment, it makes them not willing to study. But if I am able to advise them, I would like to say, ‘Stand up! And study further. It’s only education that can help your future be bright.’”
The Right To Speak And To Learn
The following day, we wake up at 5:30 a.m. to miss the morning traffic to Kampot, Sela’s home province, where we’ll spend the next three days. It’s still a three-hour ride south. It’s also mid-September, the middle of the rainy season, and the roads into town are basically one big mud puddle broken up by small islands of solid ground.
One of our first appointments is with a group of grade-school kids, all of whom have sponsors in the U.S.
School is out for the season, and won’t start again for a couple of weeks, but when we arrive in Kampot we find the students sitting cross-legged on the ground — neatly dressed in their school uniforms. The girls all wear long, pleated skirts, the boys wear pants or shorts, both in crisp white button-downs. We’ve come to capture some photos and video of the children for their sponsors, and as they look up at us expectantly, we tell them to go ahead and play!
Kicking off their shoes, the children make a circle in the grass and start to play a game where two kids hold a rope taut while one tries to high-jump over it without getting tangled. It’s easy for the boys in pants. But the girls are not about to be excluded. Many of them tuck their skirts into shorts that they wear beneath their uniform. They run and jump with confident, determined faces, and skillfully fly above the rope or laugh as they get caught and tumble to the ground. If they land their first jump, the rope is held higher and higher — giving them a harder challenge, and a higher goal to work toward.
Today, it’s two girls who hold the rope for the jumpers.
For many generations, families in rural areas like Kampot primarily sent their sons to school and kept their daughters home to help with housework after a certain age. If they could not afford the cost of supplies and fees, their sons stayed home to help work in the fields, too. In Kampot, few women have an education past grade school-level, and until recently, it was only men who attended town meetings. Generation after generation of women learned not to speak up or advocate for their rights — even if they faced violence at home, which many women in this community do.
“According to our tradition, women are forgotten. Women are not important,” Kosal says. “Because of this, we have to raise awareness among women that they have the right to speak.”
Cambodia’s patriarchal social structure is common of so many countries around the world. But as Kosal explains, Cambodia has taken a bit longer to modernize in its treatment of and attitudes toward women. As everywhere, there are exceptions, and Kosal is one of them. Kosal spent most of her childhood in Phnom Penh, and was the daughter of intellectuals. Unlike many girls of her generation, she was encouraged to finish school and go on to university.
“I was encouraged to study because I would influence my younger sisters and brothers,” says Kosal, who went on to earn her degree in social work and teach at the college level.
In more rural communities like Kampot, however, progress has taken a bit longer. Kosal says it’s hard to say when attitudes toward women and girls receiving an education and raising their voices started to change, but it’s largely been a step-by-step process.
“It’s hard to say when,” she says, “but one child will get educated and have success and that influences the others.”
While some change is organic, it has also come through the deliberate efforts of non-governmental organizations like Holt Cambodia and Cambodia Organization for Children and Development (COCD), our local partner in Kampot, as well as the donors who support this critical work.
In Kampot, Holt sponsors and donors help over 350 school-age children, and 200 preschool children, go to school. Many of these children are girls who would likely drop out early if not for the uniforms, supplies, books and lunch money their sponsors provide. At school, girls sit side by side with the boys. They learn to read and write, to speak up in class and voice their ideas.
Through local women’s empowerment groups that donors support in Kampot, many of their moms are also learning to speak their minds — and create change in their families and communities.
“We encourage them to speak up in the group,” Kosal says during a weekly meeting of the “Brave Women” — a six-year-old group so named by the women who helped launch it. “Our goal is for the women to raise their concerns to their community about the difficulties in their families … We have to raise awareness to women that they have the right to speak, the right not to be victims of abuse, to stop violence in their families.”
Before they joined the group, few women would attend community meetings alongside their husbands. But now, many of them go to voice their opinions on issues facing their community.
“They thought they had no right to speak,” says Kosal. “Now, they are brave. They are motivated to be brave when they see other women be brave also.”
Still, only five to ten women from each village are invited to attend community meetings in Kampot. They are still mostly composed of men. But as Kosal observes, progress is not always immediate. It is “step by step.”
One member of the group is a young mother of three whose 9-year-old daughter we met earlier — playing the high-jump game in her school uniform. She is still new to the Brave Women, and is a bit shy and soft-spoken. Although not here with her this afternoon, her daughter, Sreyka, often comes with her to the group to take notes. Sreyka’s mom never learned to read or write. But Sreyka can.
Sreyka’s mom hopes her daughter will have more opportunities than she had growing up in Kampot.
“I want her to see different things, to see the world. Not like me,” she says, sitting with her shoulders hunched, her eyes soft and a little sad. “I don’t know anything.”
When we visit Sreyka and her mom at their home, the afternoon clouds are gray and heavy — signs of an imminent downpour. They live in a one-room house, with a packed mud floor, and a single container of rice to last them the next four months. Sreyka is wearing her school uniform, and she sits by her mom on the edge of the porch — her mom holding Sreyka’s younger sister in her lap as we talk.
Sreyka’s family is one of the poorer families in the community. Her father is a farmer, but when poor rains delay their rice harvest, he travels to the city to try to find work. Her parents sometimes struggle to provide enough food — evident in the orange tint to her mom’s hair, a common sign of malnutrition.
Until recently, Sreyka was often sick and lethargic, and frequently missed school.
Then, a little over a year ago, a Holt sponsor began supporting Sreyka with monthly gifts to cover the cost of her school supplies. While these monthly gifts have helped Sreyka stay in school, the generosity of her sponsor has helped her family in other ways as well.
“I am so relieved that I no longer have to pay for school supplies, uniforms, bags, shoes and other learning materials,” her mom tells us. “My daily expenses are reduced and I can save some money for other purposes.” Purposes like food when the rice harvest is poor. Or medicine when her children are sick.
Sreyka tells us that before a sponsor started helping her family, she was very quiet and sat very still in school. She didn’t want to play with the other kids.
When we ask her why, she says, “Because I knew that my family was in difficulty.”
Now that she has the support of a sponsor, and of COCD social workers who work directly with her and her family to ensure their needs are met, Sreyka says that she feels more like making friends and having fun at school. She wants to be a teacher, she says, “because when I can learn, I can teach the others to learn like me.”
Like her mom, and like Sela in Phnom Penh, Sreyka is learning to stand up, to speak up and be independent and strong. She is, her social worker says, a brave girl.
“Even though I live in a poor family, I am committed to finishing the end of grade 12,” she says. “But if there is someone who wishes to support me to continue to study at university, I would be very thankful and would commit to getting first rank.”
Her mom says that already, Sreyka is often first in her class.
“I am very proud of her,” she says, holding her younger daughter and looking with admiration at her eldest daughter, Sreyka. “I want her to keep learning, and achieve her goal.”
Robin Munro | Managing Editor