Empowering women: A family story


Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“My grandma wanted to show them different so she raised her daughters to be better than what people were expecting.”

My name is Nhek Pichponreingseiy. I am 19 years old and I was born and raised in Phnom Penh. I am from a middle class family and  am a second year student at a medical school.

I have always been appealed by feminism, since I was young. I think it’s because of my family, they are very female oriented. My mother has 5 sisters and my grandmother has 5 sisters too. It is a woman family. They’re all working women and I know that they have experienced a lot of challenges in their lives. So I always wanted to be an activist for women’s rights. It is a bit hard to combine my medical career with my activism but what I really would like to do is to make good money by being a doctor and create a foundation that will address women’s problems and promote children’s education. I just want to help woman.

That passion for women’s rights came from my family who raised me with the ideology that women are important too. My grandma was a widow from the Khmer Rouge genocide. She had to raise 5 daughters all by herself. That situation came with a lot of challenges. The neighbors were saying stuff like “your daughters will grow up to become prostitutes” and mean things like that… People back in the days were using a lot of bad words. My grandma wanted to show them different so she raised her daughters to be better than what people were expecting. She fought to offer her daughters an education. She raised them to be strong to face the world. She got a lot of bad comments from the community, discriminations and stereotypes. My mom is a doctor now. For her and for my grandmother, it made a lot of sense that I should fight for it. Because education is really important. In Cambodia, girls are still pressured to get married at 14 – 16 years old. Access to school is sparse. I’m very passionate about that because it is not only a passion of mine, it is also linked to my family history.

“In my free speaking club at school there was a very inspiring Khmer woman who introduced me to feminism. It was like discovering a new world.”

My dreams changed a lot. I used to want to be an astronaut or a model which is kind of impossible right now. When I was young I was kind of conservative and I would look down on women who wore short skirts and any “sexy”outfits. I was a class manager and used to use that power to tell girls when they were not dressing “properly”. I was that kind of person. But then I met a lot of amazing women who taught me a lot. In my free speaking club at school, there was a very inspiring Khmer woman who introduced me to feminism. It was like discovering a whole new world. I discovered the possibility to be liberated from the silly rules and all the inequalities towards women. That’s when I changed a lot and now I have a clear passion for fighting for my freedom.

Being a woman makes me more passionate to fight for things. When you’re a woman you get questioned a lot – you’re being judged all the time. Being discriminated because of my gender made me become a more passionate person, someone who understands other people’s struggles and wants to fight for others. I am not saying that men don’t face challenges, struggles or discriminations, they are just different. And for us women, discriminations are systematic. When you are from a certain group that is largely discriminated in all levels of the society and when you see your rights and freedom being violated, you want to raise your voice to help others because you know how it feels. Being a woman in Cambodia is very interesting because we see the changes that could be made. We have this hope that someday we can change the situation for women. Moreover, since we face so many challenges we also get humble.

“When we see problems and (…) condemn those behaviors we are called feminazis.”

I remember that when I was in school there were those competitions abroad organized by the school, but my mom was afraid that I would participate and compete abroad. She was afraid I would get harassed or abused in a country far from home. Being a woman has indeed stopped me from achieving certain things. Parents are protective because danger is everywhere for a girl. I sometimes prevent myself from doing things, I am still shy and I lack confidence. I wouldn’t go out alone at night, we are so conditioned by the society but my friends helped me to get out of my shell.

I can see that within my group of friends, guys will have conversations about politics whereas girls will be busy preparing food or things like that. Whenever I try to join the boys’ conversation, the girls will automatically say “let the boys talk”. Girls in Cambodia sometimes seem to accept their situation. They don’t realize that they deserve better, they often don’t see the problems. And when we see problems and talk about it, when we condemn those behaviors we are called “feminazis”. For things to change, women need to speak up and realize that they have powers. They also need education.

I have heard about a movement led by women but the police stopped them! The government doesn’t really want those kind of movements rising. Rallies, gatherings or stuff like that are often prohibited.

“In Cambodia we have this belief that “fat” girls aren’t smart.”

I am a big girl according to certain standards. In Cambodia, we have this belief that “fat” girls aren’t smart. So even if I get good grades my teachers will talk to me about my weight and recommend me to lose weight if I want to be smarter. I get that kind of comments very often from my female teachers. It makes me feel bad about my weight. It makes me wonder why they keep saying that since my grades are very good and I study hard. My teachers used to point to skinny girls and tell me that they were smarter – but the fact is that it was not the case… Boys don’t get this type of comments. It is only applying to girls.

“In rural areas girls have more pressure to get married young to financially support their family”

I am aware that coming from a middle class family I was luckier than other girls. Also, I am living in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and our lifestyle is very different from the countryside. In rural areas girls have more pressure to get married young to financially support their family. I have seen that happening to some of my friends. One of my friend is 16 years old, yet she is married to a man 10 years older than her.  No one said anything about it. She was devastated but she had to go along with it because her family decided so. I have faced lesser challenges than other girls because I am from a progressive family.

“I’d like foreigners to understand our nuances, (…) they have very little comprehension of our lives and very little curiosity to learn more.”

I think most people’s opinion about Cambodian women comes from watching documentaries about women trafficking, prostitution, Khmer rouge and so on. So they don’t really understand much. They may think that all Cambodian women are obedient and wash their husband’s feet. They seem to think that we are weak and ready to do anything to please our husbands and that we don’t understand much about sexuality and things like that. I’d like to change that. It is true that some women are like that, and it is even more preponderant in the countryside, but some women don’t live by those rules. I would like to break those stereotypes. I’d like foreigners to understand our nuances and not just put us all in the same box. They have very little comprehension of our lives and very little curiosity to learn more I think.

But women are resilient. This is very inspiring to me because no matter what situation they are into they are brave enough to find their way out and make the best out of it. For instance, my grandmother raised her daughters by herself after losing her husband during the Khmer Rouge Genocide. Women can fight through it. Women are resilient, they have a lot of courage.

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