Gender stereotypes are still exerting influence on career choices in Cambodia. In the country, certain jobs such as drivers and mechanics are generally considered masculine, and thus, not suitable for females. However, a number of Cambodian women have broken through this traditional barrier to prove that they can also do what men can. Three of these women from different backgrounds tell Taing Rinith how they overcame the odds.
Every morning, Oum Chanthorn, 46, gets up at dawn while her 72-year-old mother listens to the sermon of Buddhist monks on the radio. Chanthorn’s two sons and five adopted nephews and niece are still sleeping. After getting dressed and eating a light breakfast, comprising steamed rice and leftovers from last night’s dinner, Chanthorn gets on her Honda and leaves her rented house in Chbar Ampov for Boeung Keng Kang, Phnom Penh, where she will be starting her day as a motordup driver.
For an entire day, Chanthorn is driving her customers to where they want to go all over the capital. She usually works until very late at night, and on her way back home, always prays to her late husband’s spirit to prevent her from encountering robbers who prey on Cambodian motordups for their bikes. Once she gets home, she quickly eats dinner and goes straight to her bed, sleeping to restore her energy for tomorrow.
It has been more than 16 years that Chanthorn has been doing the job, which is generally believed to be only fit for men because it requires great strength, energy and courage. However, Chanthorn says she wants to prove that the conventional image of women as weak and timid is out-of-date.
“I can even carry four men on my bike if people want to try me,” Chanthorn says. “Who set out the rule that women cannot be a motordup or taxi driver?”
“If women can stand the pain of being pregnant and giving birth, the pain that men will never understand, there is nothing that we cannot overcome.”
Chanthorn used to own a street food stall in Phnom Penh, but by the time her husband, an official at the Ministry of Culture and Fines Arts, passed away in 2002, she failed at her business because too many clients ate her food on credit. Not being able to find a job or get enough capital to start a business, Chanthorn decided to be become a motordup driver, using her late husband’s bike, which was one of a few things her family possessed. Since then, this job has been the only source of income to support her big family.
Like other female motordups in Cambodia, Chanthorn faces discrimination, mainly from Cambodian male customers, who believe that it is not a job for a woman. Many say it is a shame riding behind a woman on a motorcycle.
“I have no problem giving men a ride, but most of them say I should stop doing this and find another job,” Chanthorn says. “Maybe it is a common stereotype that women are bad drivers, but for me, I never had an accident in the past 15 years.”
Chanthorn brings home around $500 per month, which is used to pay the rent, food, utilities and her children’s education. Her eldest son is now in his third year at a local university, thanks to the income she makes as a driver. Despite having no savings, Chanthorn says she will keep doing it until she becomes too old to work.
Sometimes, when Chanthorn has problems with her old bike, she always has it fixed at a small bike repair stall near Toul Sleng Primary school in Boeung Salang, about a kilometre from her “base” in Boeung Keng Kang. It is run by Ol Sinat, a 31-year old bike mechanic, and her husband.
When clients come to her stall, for example, to replace their bike inner tube, they are usually surprised when Sinat is the one who does it because such work is deemed unsuitable for a woman. Yet, Sinat doesn’t mind getting her hands and face dirty with motor oil. She tells herself she has to do it for the family.
“I used to be a housewife, but when we had our first child, we needed more money, so I decided to ask my husband to teach me how to fix bikes,” says Sinat. “I am not smart enough to understand advanced motor mechanics, but I can fix basic parts and I am still learning every day.”
Sinat says it is a difficult work fixing punctures as she often burns her hands while patching an inner tube – not to mention she is still performing her role as a housewife. But, she adds that it is the only way she can contribute to the family’s income.
“We are saving for our children’s education,” Sinat says. “Our life is difficult because we did not have education opportunities, so we want our children to live better.”
Meanwhile, at Sovan Automotive Garage in Phnom Penh, Ouch Sreyroth is inspecting a car engine and mechanical and electrical components to diagnose issues accurately. Sreyroth is the only mechanic in the garage, and is a woman.
Sreyroth, 21, comes from a poor farming family in a small village in Kampot. Many parents in her village have taken their daughters out of school and used them as extra help on the farms or sent them to Phnom Penh to work in the garment factories. However, Sreyroth’s parents understood the importance of her education and kept her in school until she received her high school diploma.
“After high school, we were deciding on what I should do,” Sreyroth says. “Money is always a problem to us so it was hard for me to get myself enrolled in a university in Phnom Penh.”
Sreyroth was good in science subjects in school, especially physics. Meanwhile, she also noticed the huge increase in motor vehicles in her province and the lack of mechanics to fix them when they are broken. Therefore, she decided to enroll at a local state-run technical school.
“The school principal gave me a scholarship so that I could study while still living with my parents,” Sreyroth says. “At first, our neighbours criticised my parents for allowing their daughter to study to become a mechanic.”
“However, my parents ignored them because they believed that I had learned enough to decide on what was good for myself.”
Sreyroth was the only female student in the class, and her classmates usually teased her for that. But they had to swallow their words after she proved herself by becoming the top student in all three academic years. After graduation, the Japanese government offered her a scholarship to continue her studies in Japan, but she chose to study to become a mechanic trainer at Cambodia’s Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training so that she could still help her family and assist her country in training its youth.
Again, she was the only woman in the ministry’s programme. Even now, Sreyroth is still teased for what she is doing. Being called a “tomboy” is a common occurrence.
Sreyroth dreams of having her own automobile garage as well as a school for mechanics someday. She says gender discrimination is just a small hurdle in her path to success.
“Today, in the modern world, there should not be any barrier, social or economic, that prevent women from doing anything we want,” Sreyroth says.
“My message to all Cambodian women is that they have to overcome the stereotypes and get out to do what they want or need to do.”