BETSY Bradley describes herself as a former “bra burner” – a symbolic reference to the 1960s feminist movement – who has experienced the benefits of gender equality and knows it is effective.
She also believes women in Cambodia are still “second-class citizens”. For both these reasons, Bradley, formerly a successful businesswoman in the US, embarked with a Cambodian monk-turned-tour guide on a project to create the next generation of female leaders in Cambodia.
That was at the beginning of last year, after an unexpected friendship formed in October, 2008, when the guide, Sea Sophal, took Bradley, then a tourist, to a stupa where the ashes of Khmer Rouge victims rest in peace.
It was then that Bradley knew she needed to help make a drastic life change.
“I worked in real-estate advertising and was living the American dream.
“But for me, it was a nightmare: an endless loop of working, accumulating and maintaining my accumulations. I wanted work with a higher purpose.”
So she sold her house and business in the US, moved to Siem Reap and, with Sophal, formed the NGO² (Non-governmental Organisation for the Next Generation). It was named the Bamboo Shoot Foundation.
Sophal’s long-term vision had been to bring education back to Cambodia. “I was a young boy from the countryside. My village was 50 kilometres from town. I was struggling so hard for education because I valued it so much,” he says.
In 1998, Sophal moved to Phnom Penh to attend the National University for Management.
“I was very interested in doing something related to politics and protests. I want to rebuild the country from a strong movement when the people are young.
“The young generation has no spirit. They don’t know exactly who they are, and they’re not sure of themselves.”
In November, 2007 Sphal became a monk for six months, then a tour guide in 2008.
“When I left monkhood, I started a career as a tour guide and thought about how I could help the young generation, especially in the qualities of leadership and spirit.
“The main reason I joined the monastery was for education.”
In February 2009, Bradley and Sophal began their first project of the Educational Centre for Human Potential Development, an English and IT school at the Wat Prasat Tramneak Pagoda.
“Since Sophal was a former monk and had such strong passion for his vision, I felt I could trust him. He was on a mission, and I felt I could help him do some major good here. We had a warm and friendly rapport immediately,” Bradley says.
But Sophal saw a need to empower Cambodia’s young women and mould them into future leaders of the nation. he says that when they understand Cambodia’s history and culture, “They feel very proud.”
He visited the girls’ dormitory created under the Asian Development Bank in the grounds of Angkor High School.
It recruited girls from poor and rural areas to curb the female drop-out rate, and the dormitory was a home stay for girls who wanted to continue their education.
At the time, the premises had been abandoned. The pipes were leaking and the bathroom facilities were out of order, and there was only a housemother, with no budget for the girls.
“It was a very unsafe place. Anyone could walk in. I used money from my own pocket. I talked to the girls about empowerment, spirit, inspiration, and successful people in education,” Sophal says.
In February of 2010, Sophal and Bradley began the Young Women Leaders program, a dormitory and education centre to create the next generation of female leaders of Cambodia, beginning in grade 10.
With the help of Ponheary Ly’s foundation, Sophal’s ex-high schoolteacher and CNN Hero of the Year nominee, he was able to recruit volunteers for an English class which he started he said “to give the girls hope.”
With the support of native Cambodian-turned New York resident Marshall Kim and his foundation, the Cambodian American Foundation for Education, this covers the tuition for the girls to attend university.
One ‘‘graduate’’ from the program, Nob Chantra, is now a student at Build Bright University.
“I am studying banking and finance and want to be an accountant. I am very interested in Cambodia,” she says.
“I want to pay for a poor family in a far-away city and buy them clothes and shoes, especially the children.”
As well as having their tuition fees paid, the girls receive a scholarship that includes a $10-a-month allowance for uniforms, books, shoes and food.
“The biggest priority is the grades. If they don’t get good grades and pass their exams, they aren’t examples of good women leaders,” Bradley says.
There are now 20 10th-graders, 16 university students and five residents living at the centre’s dormitory.
Sophal’s target is to have 25 new students each year enter the Young Women Leaders program. The requirements for eligibility include receiving As and Bs in class and to pass the general junior high-school exam with a D.
Students also need to be from an area where the nearest high school is 10km away, have a poor family background, and be highly motivated, with a clear vision of their future.
The girls leave the dormitory in the morning and have classes at Angkor High School. At noon, they return for lunch and have private classes in physics, mathematics and Khmer literature.
They are free to play volleyball in the afternoon and have an English class with a native speaker from 6pm to 7pm.
There are also women’s-rights and gender-issues classes.
Betsy Bradley sums up her quest to raise the bar for young local women: “As a former bra-burner, I have experienced the benefits of gender equality, so I know it’s effective.
“Women in Cambodia are still second-class citizens, and not even aware of basic human rights for the most part. Working with ‘our girls’, I have witnessed the power of education and I see how much more aware, stronger and braver they are.”