Waiting to begin a shift as a cashier at the 24-hour BBWorld restaurant on Monivong Boulevard, demure young Srun Vouchleng, wearing a white and red uniform that matched the burger joint’s decor, quietly explained how her dream of getting a university education was crushed.
As is the case for so many young women in Cambodia, the social, financial and logistical challenges of completing higher eduction proved insurmountable.
Vouchleng, 26, who grew up in a rice farming family in a small village in Kandal province, said she had always wanted to attend university and, after finishing high school, moved to Phnom Penh chasing her goal.
“I saw how other people who got a good education were able to get good jobs and earn more money,” she said.
She lived with her older brother and, working full-time earning $80 a month, was able to afford the $370 per year tuition fees to study marketing at the National Institute of Business.
But, three years into the four-year course, her father fell ill with a serious degenerative bone disease.
“I had to quit university studies so I could send more money home to my family,” Vouchleng said, adding that she usually sent home $50 of her $80 monthly earnings.
“I’m very sad. I feel like I’ve wasted years of my life.
“I think it would have been different if I was a boy. They don’t need to think about their families, they just do what they want with their money.”
Historically, fewer Cambodian women have gone on to study at higher education institutions and universities than men.
According to the US Government’s Federal Research Division, at the height of Cambodia’s development in 1970 – before the civil war and the Khmer Rouge obliterated the country’s educational infrastructure – only 730 of the University of Phnom Penh’s 4,570 students were women.
The situation has improved since then, but women still lag well behind. Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports figures show only about one third of university students these days are women and the higher the qualification, the lower the female rate of participation.
In the 2012-13 academic year, they made up 39.91 per cent of the 216,053 students studying a bachelor’s degree, 33.6 per cent of the 23,678 studying an associated degree, 21.49 per cent of the 6,160 masters students and only 6.33 per cent of the 142 PhD students.
The annual report by the Cambodian National Council for Women released last week said barriers to young women finishing higher education included the scarcity of scholarships, family financial issues and a lack of accommodation close to educational institutions.
Ros Sopheap, Gender and Development for Cambodia executive, said cultural factors also played a part with Cambodian women tending to be more willing to make sacrifices in order to help their families than Cambodian
However, the major problem was not having somewhere to live near universities.
While young male university students could stay in pagodas, young women had to stay with friends or relatives or rent their own rooms and most families did not believe these living arrangements were “safe”, Sopheap said.
Cambodian families “put their eyes on the boys in a different way”, she said.
“They don’t worry about sexual relationships with the boys but they do with the girls,” she said.
“I feel this is very unfair.”
Sopheap said the government should invest more money in scholarships for young women and the construction of more female-only dormitories. “It’s very important,” she said.
A statement issued by Minister for Education said that the government provided scholarships to “poorer students, to women, and to rural area students.”
“Moreover, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports has constructed four dormitory buildings in Phnom Penh to serve those from rural areas,” the statement said.
“Those dormitory buildings were officially inaugurated by Prime Minister Hun Sen for women who come from rural areas.” One of the first accommodation options constructed exclusively for young women studying in Phnom Penh was built by the
Harpswell Foundation which has a 47-bed dormitory in Teuk Thla village and a 33-bed dormitory in Boeng Trabaek.
The foundation selects the brightest students from around the country – regardless of their families’ economic situations – and provides them with lodging, food, transport and leadership training.
Manager Ing Varony said Harpswell was the first place to provide accommodation for female university students in Cambodia when the Boeng Trabaek dormitory first opened in 2006.
“None of the universities in Cambodia have dormitories. That’s normal in the West, but we’re the first place in Cambodia to do it,” she said.
Varony said it cost about $1800 to house, feed and transport each student. Because they were all in the top five per cent of students, almost all had their tuition fees paid for by scholarships, she added.
At the Teuk Thla village dormitory, 20-year-old Srun Keavatey (no relation to Vouchleng) lives in a comfortable room with three other young women, each with their own textbook covered desk and bunk bed.
The four-storey building has a kitchen, library, computer room with internet and even a small lecture theatre.
Keavatey, whose parents are teachers, said she would have found it difficult to continue on to higher education without help from the Harpswell Foundation.
Now in her fourth year of courses in international studies at the Institute of Foreign Languages and economic development at the Royal University of Law and Economics, she said she wanted to work in government or at an NGO after graduating.
“My parents only earn a little bit and can’t support me to study,” she said. “[If I couldn’t stay at the Harpswell dormitory] I would have to rent a house and work and my parents would also be worried about my safety because I’m a girl.
“I’m glad Harpswell have provided me with a safe place to stay.”
Meanwhile, plucky Vouchleng doesn’t hold much hope that she will be able to return to university.
Instead, she hopes to start her own business.
“Working at BBWorld, I’m learning first-hand how to run my own business.”
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