Ambitious young women are breaking barriers in Cambodia. Bridget Di Certo and Lim Meng Y meet some of the country’s feminists, entrepreneurs and students to investigate the changing role of women in society. Photography by Dylan Walker.
“I want to be Prime Minister,” declares Chea Chanreaksa, voicing an ambitious goal for a 19-year-old agriculture student from rural Siem Reap. “My mother wanted to be a midwife, but she couldn’t because of the tradition and economics in the family.”
The ‘tradition’ Chanreaksa speaks of is rooted in a 19th century Cambodian code of conduct for women called Cbpab Srei, or law for women. Among other stipulations, the text — written over a number of years by powerful male figures — instructs women not to walk too loudly or risk sounding like lightning.
Entrenched so deeply in society that the text was part of the school curriculum in the 1950s and 1960s, Cbpab Srei has shaped attitudes toward women for much of recent memory. But times are changing and a new generation of educated, ambitious women like Chanreaksa are shaking off the shackles of Cbpab Srei and expecting more from their career than an early entry into domestic duties.
“How can you do anything if you must walk around softly all the time?” says 20-year-old student Tum Sereyroith, her legs crossed on a small plastic chair in the courtyard of the female-only Harpswell Foundation dormitory in Phnom Penh.
As one of the first Cambodian women to study mining engineering, she has little time for walking softly and relishes the opportunity to share her ambition of working in the male-dominated resources industry.
“People think it will be difficult for a girl because we have to work outside with no air conditioning. I don’t care, I’m a girl and I can do it,” she says.
A Tired Tradition
Achieving gender equality is a preeminent goal in Cambodia. The national constitution emphasises the equal value of housework and a paid job, and vetoes any form of discrimination against women, according to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
In reality, these protections can be aspirations rather than actualities. Engineering student Sereyroith admits that for many men in her life, her choice of career is difficult to understand. Her motives are constantly questioned and her commitment to working in a physically, as well as mentally, demanding profession is doubted by those who expect to see a respectable young woman in a clean, indoor job.
According to United Nations Development Program gender advisor Jamila Seftaoui, the stereotype that women cannot be as good as men is still widespread in Cambodia.
With fewer women than men in prestigious positions in business and public administration, they gain limited media exposure and social recognition, leading some to continue to look down on women through a Cbpab Srei-tinted lens.
In modern Cambodia, a woman’s first responsibility is often family care and domestic duties. As men are not quite sharing family care and tasks, women who pursue a professional career can often be lumped with the bulk of chores in addition to their employment obligations, meaning they can struggle to constantly fill two or three different roles, Seftaoui says.
Breaking the Mould
Such obligations can be burdensome for women trying to break into big business, but they are increasingly changing the mould.
Last year, the first Cambodian Women’s Entrepreneurs Association (CWEA) was formed in response to heightened demand from successful businesswomen for a group to address their unique challenges.
Cambodia’s ‘first lady of silk’ and CWEA president Seng Takakneary believes that while a successful woman has a heavy cross to bear, a female’s innate determination and durability is a recipe for success.
“I can see that a woman will watch every detail,” she says. “She will never forget her responsibilities to the home, so she will always be successful both in business and family.”
For the businesswoman, financial independence is imperative to breaking out of a traditional role as housewife. “A woman must empower herself economically and then she will always be safe, calm and appreciated by the family,” she says.
Statistics show that females are already doing just that. Last year’s Economic Census of Cambodia indicated that women run more than half of the business establishments in the Kingdom, the majority of which are one or two person smallholdings.
Many argue that continuing to empower women makes good economic sense for a developing country. The UN states that achieving a 70 percent level of women’s participation in the workforce is capable of markedly increasing a country’s Gross Domestic Product.
“Achieving gender equality is a precondition for overcoming poverty, hunger and disease,” the UN’s resident representative Douglas Broderick told a recent female empowerment forum.
The understanding of gender equality and feminist principles is also evolving, according to the chair of Cambodian Young Women’s Empowerment Network, Chan Sophoan.
“Many people at the grassroots level would not at all understand what it is to be a feminist,” says the 28-year-old, who is helping a group of young women learn about feminist theory.
For Sophoan, the best formula is to keep it simple. “If a woman is acting to participate in society through being involved actively with her community it makes them a feminist,” she explains. “For us, feminism and gender equality are the same things.”
Sophoan contends that using culture and tradition as excuses for gender inequality are of waning relevance for women in an increasingly modern and educated society.
“Every country has a different culture, so gender equality will not look exactly the same everywhere,” she says. “We need to mainstream gender equality into our Cambodian culture … And it is not ‘cultural’ for women to be lower than men at all. Our culture is not the problem — it’s the people.”
Author Trudy Jacobsen argues in her book Lost Goddess: The Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History that Cbpab Srei is a biased invention of the role of Cambodian females who, throughout the Angkor Empire, were highly respected, powerful and independent. But even for women, feminist concepts can be hard to digest.
“Feminism is so new to me, so I understand it simply as the chance to reach gender equality and to promote women to be respected,” 24-year-old Sambath Thida says, as her group discusses the cultural acceptance of contraception at a feminist workshop. “In Khmer, there is no word for gender and a very low concept of gender equality.”
Rural villagers and men would have the most trouble understanding the concept of gender equality, Thida believes.
“Men in provincial or isolated areas might not know about this at all. Some young men in Phnom Penh might, but mostly not,” she says. “We see all the focus on women but I think sometimes they forget about the male group — the group that is keeping women down.”
Experts say that while vital work is being invested into improving the roles of women in society, with bodies like the UN working at a policy level to bring gender issues to the fore, it is equally crucial to work with men to counter negative stereotypes.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs is taking the social temperature of men in respect of women’s roles. As part of a ‘gender unawareness’ drive by the Ministry, men in the provinces were asked to describe their wives’ jobs.
“Those whose wives [were] having paid jobs would proudly give the answer. For the same question, many husbands with housewife spouses would respond that ‘my wife stays at home and does nothing’,” says Cambodian Secretary of State for Women’s Affairs Khim Chamroeun. “Many still don’t value housework and [a] paid job equally.”
UN Population Fund representative Marc Derveeuw says it is “crucial” that men are involved in gender equality initiatives, but limited resources often restrict such moves.
For businesswoman Takakneary, to change a man’s attitude you need to introduce him to a woman’s world.
A lot of curious men attend networking events of the newly-formed women’s entrepreneur group. “Men talk, and this means that when they are sitting around they are talking to each other about each one’s wife, and then they slowly start to understand the women’s world,” she says.
Fighting for their rights
A sad truth remains that for some Cambodian women violence is a part of their world — either through domestic abuse or a risk of exploitation. Fighting such practices is one of the key initiatives for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in helping to better the situation of Cambodian women and girls.
“A lot needs to, and can be, done on women’s awareness about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable,” Derveeuw says of the frequently accepted or ignored crime of gender-based violence.
Women’s security fears can also play a part in access to education in some areas, students contend. Chea Chanreaksa says that in her experience, the gender gap in school enrolments for rural areas isn’t just about a preference for educating boys over girls, but also fears for personal security.
“I started walking to school by myself when I was six. When you are in the provinces the first problem is security,” Chanreaksa says. “Even now, I am studying agriculture and I should stay out in the field, work and sleep in the field, but I cannot. Men have the opportunity to go everywhere.”
Despite such obstacles, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says there have been large improvements in girls’ education in Cambodia, as measured by the gender parity index. This is in part thanks to an overall increase in the number of primary and lower secondary schools, reduced poverty levels and increased government support for education.
UNICEF hopes that by keeping women in schools any remaining educational disparities will reduce in the near future. The Siem Reap agriculture student who aims for top office is just one example of the rewards and confidence that such education can bring. “Of course a woman can run the country,” she says with a smile.