Celebrating the strength of Cambodia’s sisters, editor Marissa Carruthers speaks to some of the women who are leading the way in their sector, and inspiring others to follow suit. Photography by Charles Fox.
“I feel there is the perfect storm brewing for female leadership in Cambodia right now,” says Menno De Block, reeling off a lengthy list of strong female figures he has interviewed for his forthcoming novel, celebrating the achievements of young Cambodian women.
Despite Cambodia traditionally being a matriarchal society – evidence dates back to ancient times when queens were revered more than kings, with Neang Neak, or Queen Lieu Ye, believed to have founded the pre-Angkorian Funan state – in recent times there has been a reversal, largely due to foreign influences.
Remnants of this matriarchal society remain today, with men expected to move into their wife’s family home, and women in charge of the finances. “What’s interesting is on a household level, women hold a position of power,” says Chea Serey, director general of Cambodia National Bank. “But in the professional world, there’s a lot of prejudice. There is this idea that women should stay at home and look after the children while men go to work.”
This in part comes from the ingrained gender roles laid out in the Chbab Srey – or “rules for girls”. Despite the Ministry of Women’s Affairs requesting the government scrap the cultural code from the national curriculum in 2007, it is still informally taught in many schools. Focusing on women’s behaviour it offers advice, such as, “Happiness in the family comes from a woman” and “A woman’s poor character results in others looking down upon her husband”.
“Especially in rural areas, girls are expected to go to school, get married and look after the household. The vast majority are expected to drop out of school by the end of the second year,” says De Block, whose book, Diving Deep, Going Far, is a spin on the Khmer proverb,”A girl cannot dive too deep, and cannot go too far”.
However, times are changing. The Kingdom’s rapid development over the last 15 years, increased access to education and information, and a swelling middle-class have presented a wealth of opportunities for women to shine. Today, a new generation of Cambodian women are defying pressure from their parents, peers and society to pave their own paths to success while smashing gender stereotypes.
With too many to choose from, we throw the spotlight on a handful of the women who have battled pressure from all corners to get where they are today, serving as an inspiration to all.
Owner of Lotus Silk
Born into poverty in a village in Kampong Chhanang, San Vannary’s life was laid out for her from birth – a short stint at school before finding a husband, having children and looking after the family home. But her vision was much more, wanting to travel to Phnom Penh to study and find a job that would help her fellow Cambodians and country to develop and grow in the future.
“It took me a long time to convince my parents to let me go to Phnom Penh,” says the 37-year-old. “They were worried about my safety because I’m a girl, and also because there wasn’t enough financial support.”
Eventually, her powers of persuasion triumphed, and in 1997 San moved to the capital to study business management and English. Lack of funds to foot her university bill meant seeking full time work, with San spending seven years working days and attending night classes before graduating and taking one more step towards her dream.
Fuelled by her love for her country and commitment to help bring about change for its people, in 2005 she set the wheels in motion to create a business that would promote her homeland, help revive Cambodia’s silk weaving heritage and support struggling rural communities.
The mother-of-three found families in Kampot to grow mulberry trees to feed the silkworms and create raw silk, bought a sewing machine and recruited one tailor to create Lotus Silk’s first batch of scarves from her house in between her full time job at Action Aid International.
In 2011, she took the plunge, opening her Street 240 boutique which still stands today. “I decided to make this my full time job and do the business I had always dreamed of,” says San, who also serves on the board of Cambodia Women’s Entrepreneurs’ Association. “It was a hard decision because I gave up my basic salary and took a risk.”
Today, she designs, creates and sells a range of silk scarves, clothes and accessories made from silk or upcycled fabrics from garment factory waste textiles, exporting to South Korea, Canada, the US and Germany.
“I’m proud all of my products are 100 percent from Cambodia,” she says, adding that silk is wove in Prey Veng while communities in Kandal produce cotton and carry out fabric dyeing.
San’s commitment has not gone unnoticed, with her mulberry tree planting programme catching the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture, which supports her efforts. And, among her many other accolades, in 2012 she scooped the Women’s Creativity in Rural Life award and in March was awarded the title of outstanding woman entrepreneur of ASEAN.
“I want to help eradicate poverty in Cambodia and empower the people,” she says. “After all these years, my family are now happy for me, and proud that I am a female and have done this.”
Director General of Cambodia National Bank
“Because I’m a woman and I’m young, men often think I’m the secretary until I sit at the head of the table,” says Chea Serey. “You can see the expressions on their faces.”
In charge of the country’s purse string, Chea’s job as head of Cambodia National Bank (CNB) has thrust her into the limelight, and given her a weighty role of responsibility – one she has relished, despite battling prejudice along the way. “I get judged more as a woman, and I have to work harder because I have to prove myself,” she adds.
“I have to remain serious, professional and firm, and work hard to establish my credibility. If I were a man, it wouldn’t be as hard or have taken as long. I want women not to be discouraged and to work to get what they want.”
Born in Cambodia, Chea moved to France at the age of eight, where she studied secondary school. During her last year, she moved to Singapore to attend the French International School of Singapore. Deciding to read for a degree in commerce, majoring in accounting and finance, Chea went on to study at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.
Back in Cambodia, she worked her way up from a cabinet officer to deputy director general in charge of banking supervision, before taking on her role in 2013.
However, despite her success, Chea has had to overcome extra hurdles than her male peers on her path to her fruitful career.
“When I come to work, it’s not a big deal as there are a lot of women working at the central bank – 70 percent – so I’m in my element,” says Chea. “The moment I move into the external world and away from central bank, that changes. But you have to be strong-willed, know what you want, and work hard to get it.”
As well as facing prejudice in the work place from her male counterparts, Chea, who has a 12-year-old daughter, seven-year-old son and is currently caring for her 11-year-old niece, says pressure also comes from her peers and the public, who accuse her of neglecting her family – a common stereotype career women in Cambodia face.
“There is a lot of pressure on women to stay at home and look after their family,” she says. “To have a career, there is a certain amount of sacrifice you have to make. I feel I have to work twice as hard to prove myself as a mother and in the workplace.”
She bows her head as she recalls her son questioning her on why work often takes her away from home. “He asked me why I never pick him up from school when all the other parents do,” she says.
“I explained I have to do an important job for the country, and he said ‘but we’re important too’. Sometimes it can be emotionally difficult and it can feel like I am compromising all the values a mother should be delivering to her children.
I hope they will grow up to understand.”
Teach for Cambodia
“My mum is worried that if I’m too clever and over-achieve, I won’t be able to find a husband,” says 24-year-old Nara Sokhema, adding that she does not echo her concerns.
Fuelled by a passion to help develop her country in the most effective way, Nara has found herself at constant loggerheads with her family and their perceptions of how her life should be. “When I was in high school, I was very obedient and did everything my mum told me,” she says, recalling how her parents were adamant she follow in their medical footsteps and become a doctor.
The turning point was at the age of 15 when the star pupil signed up to a Southeast Asian Service Leadership Network course, which saw students from elite US universities, such as Berkley and Stanford, run workshops promoting the use of critical-thinking, leadership skills and social issues, taking them out of the confines of the classroom to explore Cambodia, where for the first time Nara witnessed the struggles of rural life.
“I got a strong belief that I had to do something for my country,” she says.
Harnessing her determination, Nara launched a volunteer drive, helping organisations tackle social issues head first. “I started to question whether this was enough,” she says. So Nara started her own education initiative, helping potential students in six provinces prepare for scholarships.
“I especially wanted to help girls,” she adds. “A lot of the time, by the age of 16 to 19, they will be married and finish high school.”
Despite strong objections from her parents, head strong Nara enrolled at the University of Cambodia in economics and international studies, as well as completing a degree at the Institute of Foreign Languages. In 2014, while working at NGO Transparency International, Nara secured a Chevening Scholarship through the British Embassy to spend a year studying for an MA in International Development at England’s Manchester University.
Upon returning, she was inundated with job offers from a string of international companies, offering generous salaries. But after meeting the founders of start-up, Teach for Cambodia, she rejected them all, opting instead to take the risk of joining the ranks to help shape the future of education by training teachers to be skilled leaders and innovators in the classroom.
“I fought a lot with my family over this,” she says. “When you study abroad, they define success as coming back and working for a big firm with a lot of money. I told my parents I want to make a big impact, and I believe this will. Education is important to change Cambodia, and we need people to take it to the next level.”
While time will tell if Nara proves her parents wrong, she undoubtedly has enough passion and ambition to make huge waves of change.
Singer, song-writer and entrepreneur
Khmerican Laura Mam is proof that dreams can come true with hard work and determination. Born into a family of music-lovers, the singing sensation was brought up in San Jose, California surrounded by songs. “I grew up in a Cambodian family so karaoke was always in our household,” she says, adding that her father was a mechanic and wedding singer.
At the age of 12, Mam’s mother bought her first guitar, and she took to it immediately. But it was in 2008 during a break-up while studying at University of California, Berkeley that Mam really started pouring her heart and soul into her musical talents.
“It was a bad heartbreak,” she recalls as she strums her guitar on the top floor of the restaurant she co-owns, Rokku Sushi Lounge + Bistro. “My counsellor told me I should try channelling my emotions through music.”
Mam started posting her songs on YouTube, and in a Lily Allen-esque move, almost overnight became an internet sensation, with one of her original Khmer-language songs going viral.
“I was very lucky because YouTube was just taking off in Cambodia. I was getting messages saying finally someone is making music for our nation, and that was really inspiring.”
After college, Mam headed to Cambodia and was an instant hit with the younger generation, who related to her lovelorn lyrics and social messages. “I realised music was my healing tool but also a powerful tool for communicating with people,” the 29-year-old says. “Cambodia has a lot of emotional baggage and so much to deal with, and I wanted to play a part in helping rebuild the country.”
Despite enjoying a successful career – she currently holds the most brand ambassadorships in Cambodia – for Mam, it is not solely about the music. “This is a dream come true. I don’t even think becoming famous in Hollywood would be better,” she says. “I feel lucky to have put my finger on the pulse of the younger generation and see they have dreams as big as mine, and to encourage them to achieve them.”
As well as her co-venture – a five-storey sushi restaurant and music venue that opened six months ago – Mam recently launched her own management company, Baramey Productions, to provide a platform for local musicians to release their own music and make a decent income. “I want it to evolve; the current system is supressing artists,” she says.
Despite enjoying success, Mam has still incurred prejudice that has only served to spur her on. “I’ve been told before I’m just a pretty face so why not try acting,” she says. “I wanted to prove them wrong, and had to work extra hard to prove it to myself. If you are clear on what you want, you can follow your dreams. It just requires a lot of grit, will power and taking the ups, downs and all arounds.”