Seoun Sri-leap is a quiet young woman with an easy smile, her long, dark, wavy hair swept over her shoulders. Occasionally, she curiously looked at the notes I was taking on our conversation. We sat in her small room that she shared with four other people in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. At 17, Sri-leap passed the ninth grade and completed middle school. After that, she left school to join more than half million workers, mostly women, who are employed in Cambodia’s $5 billion garment and footwear industry that accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s annual exports. “I came to work [in the factory] as soon as I passed my ninth grade exams, because my family was poor,” Sri-leap told me. Two years later, Sri-leap earns about $200 per month and sends home $100 to support her family, including her eight-year-old sister who is studying in the fifth grade.
Sri-leap’s story is not uncommon in Cambodia. Many young girls do not have an opportunity to receive a good education due to poverty, cultural and safety barriers, and the lack of a role model. They end up working in the garment industry or leaving Cambodia for low-skilled jobs in neighboring countries like Thailand and Malaysia. In some ways, her story is similar to that of my own. But because I was fortunate enough to have access to higher education, I was able to break the barriers that keep many Cambodian women in poverty.
Strong Role Models Make Strong Women
Exposing women to strong role models is crucial for encouraging women to pursue their studies. I knew from a young age that I wanted to become an educated woman. The youngest of five siblings, I grew up in a farming family with no electricity or running water. My oldest siblings grew up during the Khmer Rouge genocide that took over the country in 1975 and went on to kill 1.7 million Cambodians. Despite virtually no schools or teachers remaining after the country’s liberation in 1979, my sister and brother eventually enrolled in school, but had to drop out by middle school so that they could work to support my family.
Even at 12 years old, I knew I wanted to do something more than just be a farmer in my village, though I did not have a lot of people I could look to for examples. My mother, one of the most influential role models in my life, always encouraged my ambitions. Even though she never finished primary school, she valued education and gave me and my sisters every opportunity to pursue our dreams. She told me that she regretted having to drop out of school due to poverty at a young age herself. “I don’t want you to be like me,” she said, “I want you to go as far as you want.” I wanted to be a school teacher; because that was a career I thought required good education and provided my teachers with a lot of respect. For many young girls, without knowing a woman who has attended university or has a professional career, it is difficult to imagine what it is like to do so. In the case of Sri-Leap, she said she had nobody to look up to. When she finished middle school, she moved to work in a garment factory, following the example many others in her village. “Most people in my village come to work in the factory, especially young people like myself,” she said. As I moved to the city for my university studies, I met many other inspiring women whose stories and experiences helped to shape who I am today, opening many opportunities for me.
Higher Education Lays a Foundation for Empowerment and Prosperity
According to the United Nations, Cambodia is likely to achieve universal primary education in 2015, but enabling students to reach high school is an ongoing challenge, especially for girls. In Cambodia, women are traditionally thought to play a less important role in family and society than men. According to a 2011 study by USAID, females had a higher dropout rate in every grade level except grades 9 and 12. If faced with the choice of keeping one child in school, many parents encourage their sons over their daughters, because it is believed that male children will become breadwinners. “She’s a daughter. Why needs a lot of studying?” one of my aunts asked my father about the decision to allow me to continue my studies at a university.
Despite financial and cultural constraints, my parents managed to support me through high school. I graduated with good grades and that allowed me to secure a scholarship to enroll at Royal University of Phnom Penh, in Cambodia’s capital city. I was still a teenager and had never lived away from my family. Like other female students, safe accommodation was my parents’ main concern. Many parents opt not to send their daughters to college far away from them due to safety concerns and poverty. Fortunately, I received a scholarship that provided me with housing at the Harpswell Dormitory and Leadership Center. The Center provides a dormitory and an in-house academic program enrichment focused on developing leadership and critical thinking skills of female students from rural Cambodia who attend universities in Phnom Penh.
At the Harpswell Foundation, I had opportunities to learn skills and meet interesting people that I would not otherwise have had. I attended weekly leadership seminars where inspiring speakers were invited to talk to the students. There were also regular discussions of national and international news and events based on articles in The Cambodia Daily newspaper. Students took turns to present and analyze news articles. I found these experiences valuable as they helped me build analytical and leadership skills, self-confidence and widen my views and knowledge of the world. These skills were important as I entered the professional world.
Harpswell also provided English classes. Before starting college, I didn’t speak much English. But I knew that English was one of the most important tools to help me reach my education and career goals, so I tried hard to study the subject. Many evenings after school, I would sit with a leadership resident, an in-house foreign volunteer who helped students with English, to practice my English. During those evenings, we would share experiences with each other.
Beyond the leadership and language curriculum, the experience at Harpswell was especially memorable because of the life-long friendships that I built during my stay. It was more than just a place to stay. It was a community where I met other inspiring young women from across Cambodia. We shared common goals and memories. We cooked, studied, and socialized together. I remember nights where we stayed up together to do school work and those evenings after final exams where we would gather in one tiny room watching movies into the night.
I graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and became the first woman in my family to hold a college degree. After completing my studies in Phnom Penh, the Harpswell Foundation provided me with a one-year scholarship to complete post-baccalaureate studies at Bard College in New York. I will always cherish the friendships, memories, and experiences I gained during my time at the Center.
Promoting a Pathway for a Better Future for Womankind
After completing my year at Bard, I worked as a reporter for the Cambodia Daily newspaper. Journalism remains an area where women are underrepresented. This is because women face more security concerns when travelling and working in the field. But I decided to become a journalist because I believed in the power of information and wanted to pursue my passion despite the challenges. For example, sometimes I was the only female journalist in a press conference with many male reporters. But I felt rewarded because I believed that my work contributed to the development of Cambodia, helping to support women in the field of journalism. During my time with the Daily, I covered politics and issues related to women’s rights and education. I reported on rape cases and land evictions, such as the infamous Beong Kok Lake eviction. In the case of land evictions, women and children are often most heavily impacted. I witnessed women struggling to fight for their rights and standing up for themselves and their families against the powerful people and interests who took their land. It was often heartbreaking, but very inspiring.
I currently work for The Asia Foundation in Cambodia as a program officer. My work focuses on conducting research to inform the design of programs and encourage positive policy reforms. Outside of work, I serve on the board of the Harpswell Foundation’s Alumnae Association. I work on strategic planning to engage the alumnae with the Foundation’s current students. This is an opportunity for me to stay connected to the Harpswell community and to give back to the other young women at the Center. I am motivated to help alumnae connect with current students at the Center because this will help create a strong network of women who will, hopefully, encourage other Cambodian women to pursue their education and a professional career. I would not be where I am now without the support and encouragement of my family, friends, and others that I have met along the way. My fate might have been similar to that of Sri-Leap’s. When poverty prevails, many women don’t have exposure to positive role models, subjecting them to a vicious cycle that is hard to break, and inhibiting education that results in continued poverty.
This September, the United Nations will ratify the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal #5 addresses gender equality and empowering all women and girls. The goal seeks to eliminate violence, discrimination, and other harmful practices, like forced marriage, that disadvantage women around the world. It also aims at providing women with access to social protection, reproductive health services, and economic resources like land and inheritance rights that, when unavailable, contribute to inequality. Most importantly, however, the goal calls for governments around the world to ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life. Doing so will contribute most directly to achieving all other aspects of the goal. SDG #5 is the UN’s second attempt to address gender issues, having first articulated that in the Millennial Development Goals (MDG 3). Cambodia had some success in meeting the Millennium Development Goals on fighting HIV/AIDS and malaria. But the country lagged behind in terms of promoting women in politics.
To achieve this objective, women must have access to higher education. In countries like Cambodia, where security concerns and economic constraints prevent many women from attending university, they are deprived of the chance to realize their full potential. Perhaps with more organizations like the Harpswell Foundation, providing high-potential women with safe housing, inspiring mentors, and academic enrichment, women in Cambodia and anywhere else can have the chance to make a change and achieve lasting gender equality.
Feature photo from harpswellfoundation.org