Despite Cambodia’s evolving gender system, local men would rather pick women with lower education qualifications as their love mates. As a result of this finicky selection, it seems many bright young ladies are left with a diminishing list of suitors.
Not unlike other men his age, Sen Sarat, a 23-year-old student at Royal University of Agriculture, said that the wife of his dreams must be between 20 to 23 years old and cannot be more highly skilled than him, so that they can co-exist without criticism from society.
“I cannot accept if people look down on me as if I were hiding behind my wife’s skirt,” Sarat said. “It seems impossible for me to choose a highly educated lady as my life partner.”
At the other end of the debate, 29-year-old Khem Vannareth, a community development worker in an international organisation, admits that she has never cared much for marriage even though age is catching up. Nareth stresses that she has high expectations on her future husband, and will not budge until she finds the right man.
A natural beauty with a cute smile, Nareth says that a combination of her busy work schedule and dissatisfaction with the quality of her suitors has led her to turn away many.
“As I have gained a lot of knowledge and international work experience, my life views are broader, so I would prefer an educated husband with higher job status compared to me,” Nareth added.
Although Cambodian society and even her family sometimes pressure her about being an ‘old spinster‘, Nareth is unfazed and constantly reiterates that she is a strong, independent person who earns her own living.
“I prefer to be single for life than marry the wrong person, who may ruin my life in the future,” she said.
No doubt the decision to marry late is at one’s discretion. However, according to a reproductive health expert, Phim Somaly, women should consider getting married before 30 years old to prevent complications during the first child birth, especially the lack of nutrition to feed their babies.
“The best time for a woman to start their family life is from 23 to 27 years old, for she would be at the right age to handle family planning,” Somaly advised.
Chou Bun Eng, Deputy Director of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs at the Interior Ministry, says that in Cambodian culture, men are afraid of proposing to women of higher education, worse still if she was past the ‘marriageable’ age. Equally disparaging is that women who marry younger men are frowned on. For these reasons, singlehood is the only way for some ladies.
“Cambodia’s government always encourages women to gain high education to work and help society, but if most of our young ladies get married by 18 or 19 years old, how do this plan can be successful?” says Bun Eng.
Her recommendation is that Cambodian men should be more understanding and fair towards women, adding that they could consider marrying older women between 25 to 30 years old because they are “better educated and mature enough to be good wives’”.
In the country’s history pages, women were urged to get married as soon as they flowered, from 14 to 16 years old. Hence, most of them could not do anything besides housework.
The world has transformed since. The statement “women cannot do anything besides moving around the kitchen” has long been abolished. As Cambodia progresses, women have more opportunities for education and to compete with men on equal platforms.
For many, being a housewife is a fading notion and marriage, an unhurried prospect.