As the world celebrates the fifth International Day of the Girl Child, Rama Ariadi spoke to two women from two different generations to see how gender bias has affected their lives, and how that has shaped their experiences as women and their perspectives on power relations between the genders.
Leakhena Khat: Student
“When I was eight, my mother had a stroke,” said Leakhena Khat, a 24-year old university student. “I had no choice but to drop out of school to support my family.”
To do that, she sold pastries and cookies by the beach in Sihanoukville. It was not a choice that she was forced to make – to Leakhena, it was her responsibility.
“After all, my name is Leakhena, which is a Khmer word that encapsulates the very essence of what it means to be a proper, Cambodian woman,” she explained.
“It was my duty – I didn’t even have enough time to think about the future, and what I wanted to become when I grew up.”
With luck and perseverance, she managed to return to school, but sadly, she is an exception.
“Even if I compare my situation with my cousin, it is completely different,” she said. “In fact, some families prefer to have girls than boys – especially in rural Cambodia. It is expected for a girl to stay at home and take care of the family, whereas boys will eventually grow up and establish their own families.”
But Leakhena said things are moving in the right direction. At her university, where she majors in international relation, the enrolment rate for girls is rising. According to her, more girls are signing up for studies previously dominated by males. “There is still room for improvement. Having grown up in an environment where girls are often treated as second-class citizens, many Cambodian girls lack the self-confidence to speak up – no matter how good their ideas may be.
“What we collectively need to realise is that girls are no different to boys. Sometimes girls can empathise with, or even see things that boys often cannot see through their perspective,” she said.
Vantha Duk: Businesswoman
“I can still remember the day when my mother told me that she only had 2,500 riels to spare for me to go to high school because my parents had spent most of their savings on my two brothers,” recalled Vantha Duk, 34, as she sat in her in bookstore in the capital’s Riverside area.
“There were also days when they said that they had no money at all for me to go to school,” continued Vantha. “I would lock myself up in my room, crying my eyes out, because I couldn’t go to school.”
She had dreamed of becoming a nurse since she saw her aunt vaccinating her relatives as she was growing up in Kandal province, just outside Phnom Penh. But she couldn’t help but wonder if she would have to give up her dream, as her parents lavished attention that they could barely afford – despite the fact her brothers had wasted the money that their parents had saved up for years, she said – because she was a girl.
“Everything changed when my aunt gave me two dollars to spend during the holidays,” continued Vantha. “I didn’t spend it – I asked my father to drive me to the market at Chhbar Ampov and I bought some pickled fruits to resell.”
In the span of three weeks, she made $50, which she used to pay her tuition fees. Driven by her desire to make up for the lost time, she made a promise that should would finish her studies. Fast-forward a decade, she managed to buy out the bookstore she had worked at for six years.
Things are beginning to look up for Vantha, but she is the exception rather than the rule.
“Sadly, gender bias in Cambodia is still widespread,” said Vantha. “It is deeply ingrained in our culture – that girls are expected to grow up to become homemakers, that girls are incapable of doing what boys can.
“I want to let all Cambodian girls know that they do not need to be afraid,” said Vantha.
“They need to grow their self-esteem and put themselves out there more. I mean, look at me – I am now the owner of this bookstore.”