As women around the world celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, the
Post looks at four local women who have chosen - successfully - to work in traditionally
By Sarah Stephens, Beth Moorthy, and Pok Sokundara.
Policewoman San Sophal
SAN Sophal is a woman well-known and well-feared by law-breaking motorists in Phnom
Penh - the stern-looking 44-year-old has been helping to keep the city's traffic
in order since 1979.
"Right from the beginning of my job, I accepted any assignment that was given
to me. I did not refuse anything, even if it meant sleeping under a tree at night,"
says Sophal. She currently holds the rank of major in the traffic police department,
and is one of only ten traffic policewomen who patrol Phnom Penh's chaotic and often
"I often get guns pointed at me, and sometimes angry motorists fire shots in
the air," she says casually, "but I'm not afraid. I just try to intervene
when there is an accident, and I am very careful."
She has good reason to be. Her male colleagues are regularly shot at or beaten by
overheated road-users. Sophal says she has her own methods of dealing with these
scenarios. "I beat the illegal drivers myself," she says frankly. "My
male colleagues might do a lot of harm if they beat them, so I tell them to hold
off - and I will do it instead." She stresses this is only for the really persistent
Sophal usually carries a gun, but at the moment is making do without it - owing to
her body feeling "a little weak" since she gave birth four months ago.
So how does she combine looking after a newborn with the demands of a full-time police
"It's difficult," she admits, "but we have to endure our difficulties
when we love our job."
Sophal says she has no trouble from her male colleagues in the force when she orders
them around - in fact, she seems to positively relish her position of power. "Before
I joined the force, I saw that some women were working as police, but that they were
not taking their jobs seriously," she says. "But I wanted to join because
I wanted to take control over men."
She says the secret to her success is that although she is a woman, she has the character
of a man, and is not content to stay in the traditionally shy or submissive roles
that young Cambodian women usually fall into.
But there are downsides to the job too - Sophal says some traffic policewomen get
sexually harassed by road users.
"Some women who do not take their jobs so seriously get their bottoms touched
by male drivers," she says. "But I never have. I take my job seriously."
It's certainly difficult to imagine anyone being brave enough to take such a liberty
with the powerful-looking woman. But if any foolhardy motorist were to try such a
The Moto Driver
Lady moto driver Khoun Nay
FROM a distance, Khoun Nay looks like any other moto-taxi driver, with peaked cap,
sunglasses, baggy shirt and flipflops. It's only as Nay comes closer that you notice
the delicate earrings, and that the flip flops are undeniably pink and flowery.
"Most passengers are surprised when they hear my voice," she said. "They
are not expecting a lady motodriver. Some of the men don't like it - they think I
am too weak to drive, or that I will have accidents. But I don't worry about what
Khoun Nay's path into a job sector almost completely dominated by men began in 1993,
when she lived in Kampong Chhnang, working as a chicken seller. On hearing that her
rakish husband had skipped town with a new love in tow, she put her five children
in the care of a neighbor, jumped on the moto that she and her husband had shared,
and drove to Phnom Penh to find him.
"I realized that the best way to find information about my husband was to become
a moto taxi driver," she said. Although she admits she had worries about her
safety, the gamble paid off - someone she met said they had seen her husband - but
that he was now in Poipet. Not one to be discouraged by such trifles, Nay once again
got on her moto, and drove the 400 kilometers from Phnom Penh to the border town.
Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be found. So, Nay spent two months earning money
to pay for her return, and drove straight back to Phnom Penh. She then relocated
her children in Phnom Penh, and has been earning her living as a moto taxi driver
"I try not to work at night, because it's dangerous," she says. But the
dangerous side to moto-driving has had some unusual twists. Once, she says, she picked
up a man who confessed at the end of the ride that he was a robber and had been intending
to steal her money - but, impressed that she was a female moto taxi driver,
he let her off with a warning. "He said I might lose the moto next time, but
Judge Kim Sathavy
KIM Sathavy doesn't wear her judge's robes any more, and her neat, slightly mild
appearance might be deceptive at first glance. But when she begins to speak of her
passion for the law, or women's equality, the drive and brilliance which enabled
her to become one of Cambodia's top court officials is clearly apparent.
Fluent in four languages, educated at three law schools, and one of only seven female
judges in the nation when she took to the bench in 1983, Sathavy challenges what
she believes to be cultural bias against women.
"Sometimes I am invited to give speeches
to women," she says. "I like to tell them to try to do this, to do that,
to work very hard, especially for further studies. If you don't try, you never get
anything. I am 54, but I try every day."
Sathavy was one of only ten girls in her 200-strong law school class; there are only
about a dozen women judges in the nation today. Although she sensed no discrimination
at university, she says her experience as a judge showed her the biases in society.
"When the public come to court, they never thought I was a woman, they would
write letters to me as 'Mr." - it was very funny...
"[People think] it's very hard for a woman to make a decision," she says,
adding that at first she was not given as much responsibility as the male judges.
Yet she made a name for herself by taking on tough cases the others declined.
"I worked harder than my [male] colleagues to show I could do [things] like
them," she says. "Sometimes I got very sensitive cases... if my colleagues
were afraid to take the case, they asked me to take it; I said no problem. Sometimes
people had bad reputations, or were very violent, but they worked well with me."
The only cases she found difficult were divorces. "It's hard - you cannot make
both sides happy all the time." She was also frustrated when both sides often
expected her to favor the woman merely because she was one herself.
Yet she feels her gender aided her in hard cases. "For the profession of lawyers
or judges, I think women are very good. I think women understand problems like family
problems more than men; it seems like Cambodian women are more serious than men."
Sathavy began to study law in 1973. Her parents in Siem Reap - her father a professor,
her mother a tailor - were enlightened enough to want a city education for their
smart daughter, but traditional enough that they chose her subject for her.
She accepted their decision dutifully, and after starting to study at Phnom Penh's
Faculty of Law, she found herself loving the law. However, when her studies were
interrupted during the Khmer Rouge years, she thought her dreams of a legal career
"I never thought I would become a lawyer during the Khmer Rouge; I only thought
of making an effort to survive."
She believes she was lucky to live through a period when the educated were butchered.
"I lied a little bit [about my education]," she says softly. "All
the people I left [university] with were killed."
When the court system was reestablished in 1982, the governor of Siem Reap was impressed
by Sathavy's education and work - as district Women's Association chief and deputy
district chief - and nominated her for the bench. After six months' training, Sathavy
heard her first case.
"The first time ... it was not easy at all," she says of being a woman
in the courtroom. "When you live in a culture where you get different treatment,
it makes you feel different than men, and I thought maybe sometimes I could not do
the same as the men - but finally it is the same, the truth is the same."
Sathavy hung up her robes in 1993 when she won a French law scholarship. At age 48,
she became the first Cambodian judge to attend the Ecole National de la Magistration
in Bordeaux, France, earning a distinction. She went on to formally complete her
long-interrupted law studies in 1997 at the Université de Droit de Lumiere
in Lyon and then won a year's scholarship to the prestigious University of Michigan
Law School in the US.
"I know only law," she asserts. "I love it very much."
Now she is a Justice Ministry official, in charge of training judges and senior officials
at the Royal School of Administration, and also teaches at the Faculty of Law and
the Cambodian Bar Association.
In her courses and speeches, she gives special attention to fledgling women professionals,
encouraging them to struggle for their rights and pursue careers in the face of inequality.
"I tell them, first, decide what you want to do, set up the goal, after that
go and try. But they are not very courageous ... the culture, the education in our
society makes them like this," she says.
"Right now, the law gives the same power to men and women, but the power is
the power of practice, in reality - sometimes it is not applied," she laments.
"I try to convince society, but ... it's very frustrating. It is not a short
The Media Mogul
Porn Phoung Bopha
Porn Phoung Bopha, chief of the Broadcasting Campaign at the Women's Media Centre in Phnom Penh.
CAMBODIAN women journalists are few and far between, but one who has also set up
her own video production company, written, directed and produced many successful
films, published her own novels at the tender age of 17 and read Shakespeare and
Tolstoy is a rare thing indeed.
Porn Phoung Bopha has done all these things; she is now the Chief of the Broadcasting
Campaign at the Women's Media Centre in Phnom Penh.
"My parents didn't like me reading and writing all the time," she laughs.
"I liked sport and literature, and they said it was a waste of time." Bopha
did not argue with her parents, but continued to educate herself in private, eventually
publishing the first of her own drama and comedy novels in 1972 when she was 17.
"People really liked them. I also got lots of advice from older writers that
I met, and they encouraged me."
The Khmer Rouge years interrupted her literary career, but towards the end of the
regime Bopha found herself in Vietnam. There, she learned to speak Vietnamese - and
discovered a whole new world of literature.
"I read the classics, like stories from ancient Rome, Shakespeare and Tolstoy,
in Vietnamese. I used them to compare with my own writing, to see how I could improve."
So what did she notice about her stories compared to the classics?
"I found that my stories were all written from one angle, that I did not have
many broad ideas. I found particularly British literature from the seventeenth to
the nineteenth century was very useful."
From this springboard, Bopha went on to become one of Cambodia's most famous and
respected women in media. In 1990 she founded her own video production company, working
as director, writer, and producer. Teaching herself as she went along, Bopha took
on the 60 or so other production companies that were working at the time, until her
organization was considered one of the very best.
"There was only one other woman with her own production company at the time,"
says Bopha, "and she did not write her own material."
Not one to sit back and be complacent, she went on to become the arts and culture
correspondent for Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper, which she did for five years before
joining the Women's Media Centre.
Bopha says her next ambition is to elevate the status of literature in Khmer society,
and to persuade the Ministry of Culture to form a committee responsible for translating
the classics into Khmer.
"I know I have been lucky, but you also need to have the courage to take risks,"
she says. "Lots of girls come to me today and say, 'oh, I want to be a famous
journalist and film-maker like you', but they are reluctant to put the effort in."
She says that young women today wanting to break into the media world will face a
lot of difficulty.
"My impression is that they are not so interested. . . it's important that they
have talent, ideas, and an understanding that this kind of work is not well-paid!
They should also have confidence and self-reliance, and spend all their free time
reading and writing. Books are so important.
"I am confident that if women are strong, they can do whatever the men can do."