The key to Cambodia's future
Schoolgirls in Phnom Penh are studying hard to become doctors, lawyers, and businesswomen
- but they say they lack role models and hint that their career choices are not always
Prum Sivun says she enjoys studying human rights at high school, but will go into
business when she finishes school.
The articulate 16-year-old is upbeat about women's rights in Cambodia: "A long
time ago, Cambodian women's rights were a little bit bad," she says. "Sometimes
the man would hit the woman. But now it is better than before . Now the royal government
and NGOs cooperate closely, and do things like show human rights on TV."
She believes girls and boys are treated the same at school and that they are equally
assertive in asking questions in class.
But when she is asked what kind of business she is interested in, her elder brother
interrupts her to say: "Marketing."
Sivun admits: "Even though I favor human rights, my parents want to make me
become a businesswoman, they think it's better because they cannot depend on the
Fifteen-year-old Pov Dany says firmly that she wants to be a lawyer, but goes blank
when asked why.
"I don't know . . . um, when I look at videos from Hong Kong and other countries,
I see law very often," she says, adding, "My parents think it is a good
choice for me." She's never met a female attorney.
Similarly, Meas Sopheap, 12, says she wants to be a doctor although she doesn't know
any female doctors.
"My parents are teachers, and my father says it is very difficult work,"
Asked why she prefers medicine, she turns shy and repeats: "I don't know,"
while a group of boys surrounds her and prods her to answer. When they drift off,
she finally says: "A doctor is a good job for everyone, you can treat people
... most women want to see a woman doctor."
Minister of Women's Affairs Mu Sochua says educated girls like these are the key
to Cambodia's future.
"If a young woman is educated, she will have a better chance, but she has to
be better educated [than men] and have a special area of expertise," she says.
The Ministry is launching a new campaign for International Women's Day on March 8
- titled "Neary Rattanak", or "Women are precious gems"- focusing
on girls' education, women's literacy, economic opportunities, reproductive health
and access to legal protection.
Sochua says the campaign derives its name from a Khmer proverb which calls men "gold"
and women "pieces of cloth". She explains that gold can be dropped in the
mud and still cleaned off, while cloth can be spoiled - that is, women should be
kept to one side and kept pure.
This cultural bias hampers women's professional progress, she believes. "We
get the back seat," she laments.
"Women are an asset, not a liability. They are as precious as gold," Sochua
says. "In the next ten years, I hope Cambodia will develop in many areas and
I hope women will have a better future than today."