The students at Liger Leadership Academy are extending their conversations from their gender curriculum, to engage other curious students outside their campus. Writer Danielle Keeton-Olsen finds out more. Photography by Enric Català.

Souyeth* sees a lot of limitations on the way gender and sexuality are discussed in Cambodia. She points out that Khmer language doesn’t even have words to discuss gender identity. But rather than snicker or go silent, as most 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds tend to do, she and her classmates at Liger Leadership Academy are showing their peers the importance of exploring gender in society.

“The only way to pass that barrier is to do it and see what it’s like,” Souyeth says. 

When teachers at Liger Leadership Academy infused gender and equity into class discussions, the young people showed they were eager to talk about how perceptions of gender impact their lives. Now the driven students are trying to open up the conversation in Cambodian society.

Creating “Change Agents”

Cara Shelton – the learning facilitator who helped lead the gender unit – was nervous on the day they introduced the gender and equity curriculum to the students.

“The things you say about gender are going to last,” she adds.

Samantha Cody, another learning facilitator on the unit, says she wouldn’t have been asking these questions at the age of 15, but wasn’t surprised to see the unique class embrace these discussions.

The students at Liger are recruited to the boarding school outside Phnom Penh for their creativity, drive and intellectual maturity, Shelton says. Liger’s recruitment team evaluates students from across Cambodia, funnelling 8,000 candidates through an extensive seven-round application period. The 110 extraordinary young thinkers selected live on the forested campus tuition-free.

The curriculum is customised far beyond a standard Cambodian or international education programme. The campus hosts one junior and one senior cohort, around the ages of middle and high school respectively, but that’s where the structured grade levels stop.

Students don’t take the national exam, instead fulfilling 30 required credits and creating a portfolio of work. Every element of the curriculum aims to shape young people into leaders, or “change agents”, Shelton explains.

Learning facilitators design core classes, such as English and history, to prepare students for the calibre of US and other international universities, while taking class interests into account. Other courses emphasise experiences, for example, a geography course that sent students to explore Cambodia’s 25 provinces.

Difficult Discussions

Once Liger’s lead staff decided to centre the literacy unit on gender, Shelton and Cody found reading materials and lead discussions on the subjects students wanted to explore and discuss, ranging from identity and wage equality, to domestic violence.

Sometimes they struggled to find the words to describe their feelings or observations, and at first some unmeasured words or descriptions offended or hurt other students, Cody recalls.

The students reflected back on these discussions through essays and articles, which culminated into a successful blog, Change for Equity.

In his post, Venghour defines himself as an “effeminate Khmer boy” and analyses his relationship with his peers. Another writer, Sreynith ruminates how an equitable education system “can allow ourselves to explore and chase our own dream without needing a shell like a hermit crab because of our gender”.

Their conversations revealed few simple solutions to complex gender-related issues. When the discussion turned to domestic violence, students brought forward painful stories, and they ended the conversation with no clear answer to end the abuse.

Continuing the Conversation

As a group, the students decided to draw more students into the conversation through a gender and equity summit. During two days in January, Liger students invited other high school students from throughout the country to participate in workshops and activities that subverted traditional ideas of gender.

“It was just awesome,” Shelton recalls over the clangs of trays and chatter in Liger’s canteen. “It was messy sometimes and that was even a really cool part of it because 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds were conducting workshops on gender and power dynamics. They did it all.”

Moving forward, the students want to adapt the summit into a toolkit for other schools in Cambodia. A small team will continue writing about gender for the blog.

Liger students are rarely shaken by a challenge but taking these conversations home during holiday breaks has shown them how difficult it can be to change their families’ ingrained assumptions.

As the course progressed, 16-year-old Theara shifted from believing homosexuality was unnatural to accepting individuals across the LGBTQ spectrum.

But when he asked his mother in Kandal province whether she’d accept a gay son, she replied that she would not let him in the house.

Most of the students explained similar dilemmas with their parents, and the young women in particular said their parents expect them to get married by a certain age. But at least for 15-year-old Sopheak, she’s determined to continue the conversation and serve as a leader for her younger sisters.

“I have two younger sisters, and I don’t want my parents to put these limits on them,” Sopheak says. “I want to do something, but I really don’t know how to approach them yet, but I’m still thinking.”

To read the blog, visit changeforequity.ligeracademyblog.org.