Despite commonly held myths about women playing sports – suggestions that they will go sterile or become so strong that men won’t like them – there is a dedicated and growing number of women turning to sports not only for recreation but also as a profession.
Cambodia has increasingly become involved in international competitions over the past few decades, and while women have long been left out of such activities, unable to overcome the widespread gender discrimination in Cambodian society, things are beginning to change at last.
In recent years, women have accounted for 30 percent of the total population of athletes representing Cambodia in international competitions, said
Vath Chamroeurn, secretary general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia. In 2009 alone, Cambodian female athletes won one gold medal, four silvers and 13 bronzes in the 25th Southeast Asian Game held in Laos.
“We wanted to encourage women in all kinds of sports. As far as female athletes are concerned, I think the ability of those in other countries is still limited like us, so if we move a step further now by improving our female athletes’ capacity, we will have a lot of opportunities to get more medals in the future,” Vath Chamroeurn said.
Lack Som Ath, general director of the General Department of Sports at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, says that Cambodia participates in 20 types of sports, many of which women engage in. Yet the ministry wants women to begin doing boxing and wrestling, as well, because very few women compete in these sports.
Besides the societal stigma, limited income is another concern of female athletes in Cambodia, as well as their male counterparts. Many of them get paid to train and win extra money for medals, but they say the pocket money is still not enough. A gold medal in international play earns an athlete US$6,000, a silver $4,000 and a bronze $2,000, paid by the government.
Duch Sophorn is one of Cambodia’s finest Petanque players, a sport which the Cambodian government has prioritised since the national team began gaining international success.
The 35-year old took up Petanque classes in 2000 after experience playing basketball, badminton and bicycling since 1987. For Duch Sophorn, sports are the best thing a young person can do to avoid wasting time on drugs and gambling, and she said they can even make you braver.
“Playing sports is totally useful to both girls and boys to be healthy, and teaches them meditation while instilling sportsmanship into them.”
Duch Sophorn has participated in many sporting event since 2001, when she won the gold medal in Petanque in Malaysia, just one year after she began training. It was at that time, she said, that she started to fall in love in Petanque.
She subsequently won three silver medals and two bronze medals in competitions in Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and most recently in Laos.
“I have observed that many women here do not play sports because they do not understand the value of sports for health and for a good reputation if you do play it well,” said Duch Sophorn
Tae Kwan Do practitioner Chhoeung Puthearim has been one of Cambodia’s most successful athletes in recent years, and she is excited about the opportunities lying ahead. After participating in international competitions in eight different countries and winning nearly a half dozen bronze medals, the 20-year-old is preparing to join in the 2011 SEA Games hosted by Indonesia.
Chhoeung Puthearim does not feel alone in her field, she said, because now more females at school are beginning to take up Tae Kwan Do classes or other martial arts. But she says there is still plenty of room for growth.
“In Cambodia, if you want to get rich, you should not become a sports players. I play sports for the love of it rather than the money I earn,” she said.
Chov Sotheara, 26, is a female wrestler and a high school sports teacher in Phsar Dam Thklour high school. She was also the winner of a gold medal in wrestling at the 2009 SEA games in Laos. She said that if she wins at the upcoming Asia Games held in China in November 2010, she will be given an opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games.
As the first Cambodian woman to take a gold medal in wrestling, Chov Sotheara said she has gone through a lot of hard times, but thinks other women should take initiative to start.
“Women should play sports, as they will have a higher priority than men when is comes to the international stage,” she said. However, she also cites some difficulties facing Cambodian women.
“Cambodia is not that open for women to play sports yet. Small salaries, few incentives for starting and a lack of support for every sport have blocked many women from going further in their athletic careers,” she said.
Chov Sotheara is now training seven young girls from the provinces and Phnom Penh to sharpen her skills at wrestling.
“I have talked to some girls, and they do not want to play sports because they think they will have more muscles, making them look ugly. You have to pay a high price for being a good sportswoman here in Cambodia”, she said, adding that abroad she thinks sportswomen have better lives.
Seng Phors, an old-timer and Khmer literature professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said that in the past, women did not play a lot of sports, yet the government at that time encouraged everyone – regardless of gender – to play sports by including it in the school’s curriculum as a requirement to move ahead to a higher grade.
“Over time I have seen less involvement from women. In the past, when a girl went to high school, they would end up girls with girls. So the girls played sports together and sometimes competed with other girls or boys from another school,” recalled the professor.
The key, he said, to making young people, especially women, passionate about sports is to strongly encourage them to play all the time, even in school.