PHNOM PENH, August 17, (Khmer Times) – “We cannot succeed when half of us are held back” said Minister of Women’s Affairs, Ms. Ing Kantha Phavi.
The minister was addressing the young women of the Harpswell Foundation, who were inaugurated into The Women in Public Service Project (WPSP) Summer 2014 Institute this morning at Teuk Thla facility.
Sreyneth, an 18-year-old engineering student, never thought she could study civil engineering. “I used to be afraid of studying engineering because I am a woman. Men can do that, but woman aren’t taught they can.”
Alan Lightman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) academic, world-renowned author and founder of the Harspwell Foundation has changed that.
He spoke to the assembled room full of young women, to whom he has given the opportunity to leave their villages and enter the classroom. They fondly call him “Dad”.
Lightman describes his first time in Cambodia as the inspiration for this school. “I traveled to a rural village in Kampong Cham province with my daughter – a place where farmers could barely survive on the food they were growing.”
A woman approached him with her child and pleaded, “Please build a school.” Lightman, struck by this appreciation of education, did just as she asked in 2005.
The Harpswell Foundation offers housing to young women, as most other universities do not. Men can live with monks, while women have no other option. Housing and travel are often too expensive.
Students at Harpswell gain entrance through interviews, school rankings, and exams. With 84 students attending Harpswell, only the top females are chosen. Many come from poor families in the provinces.
The foundation partners with over 13 universities, with this Summer 2014 Institute comprising a partnership between Harpswell, The WPSP and Pannasastra University. During a highly selective and intensive two-week public service program of 63 students, 33 from Harpswell will attend.
Ask these girls their field of study and answers range from civil engineering, mathematics, and pharmacology, notoriously male dominated professions, even by Western standards.
Sophy Kahn, 29, a 2010 Harspwell Graduate, Project Manager and WPSP-Marissa Wesley award recipient grew up in a family of farmers. She said, “I feel very happy that Harpswell and WPSP provided the award to me. I am the only one with the chance to study in Phnom Penh and to finish my Masters degree in my family.”
“Women should study, then join public service”, she added, echoing the sentiments expressed by William Todd, US Ambassador to Cambodia, Wenny Kusuma, head of UN Women Cambodia, and Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Director WPSP of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative, and other speakers.
Viphea, a 19-year-old first year mathematics student agrees. She didn’t expect to be accepted to Harpswell. “In my town, people don’t encourage women to get highly educated. But, I volunteered as a teacher, studied, and expressed my ideas.”
Ms. Rangita de Silva de Alwis passionately told the students, “I want you to mark this moment. You will look back on this from positions of power, positions of public service.”
With 52 percent of the population being female, these 84 girls are a step in the right direction for Cambodia.