Choosing education over marriage


Battambang, Cambodia. 

“My Grandmother used to say that (…) if you walk loudly you are a “bad woman”, you have to learn how to walk soflty”

My family is not really traditional. Before, they were more traditional. They changed a lot the way they think. Before, for example my grandmother used to say that when you’re a woman you should not make any sound when you walk, if you walk loudly you are a “bad woman”, you have to learn how to walk softly. My parents are young so they are quite open minded, but sometimes, I fight for it. I have to fight.

I went to Australia in 2010, because I have family there, they went there because of the Khmer Rouge, they are refugees. After I came back, my family in Cambodia had plans. They wanted me to get married to a Cambodian-Australian guy that they know. I never saw his picture, I said no. He was old and I was only 16. My family tried to talk me into it again and again, until they got mad and said that I had ruined my life and myself. I was a teenager, I could not really hold my anger, so I told them “it’s my life, whatever I do is my decision, whether bad or good”. They finally listened to me because they knew they couldn’t force me.

After I said no, they were upset and they didn’t really care about me anymore. Now they let me take my own decisions. I think they trust me now. I hope they are proud of me! I don’t really talk much about my life to my family. Last year, I tried to tell them about my job, about my life and my plans, they seemed like they listened but then they just said “you should marry someone from the US and have a good life over there”, come on! There are opportunities here for me, I can do my own thing and also help the people here, and learn too! Cambodia is not a bad place!

It’s funny that I have been having a relationship with someone from the United States, because it is a coincidence, it is not about arranged marriage. It’s been 2 years now, but we always say “we don’t want to get married yet!” Before thinking about having a family, I have a lot of things to do, and him as well. He understands and he isn’t forcing me. We both need to learn. We both want to reach certain goals in our career before starting a family.

“As women, we already know that we have a harder time than men, what we can do for ourselves, is to try to become strong women, who are not under the control of a man or the family.”

From my experience, before you decide to get married, you should get to know the man, because you’re going to spend the rest of your life with him. Even if your family loves a man, they are not the ones who will marry him, you need to love him. I can see that happening a lot in Cambodia, the family loves the man, so you get married to him, and then you learn about him when you are already married. But, if you don’t like that man, what can you do? You’re stuck! What about if he is violent? You don’t know the person, he could be a very bad man. As women, we already know that we have a harder time than men, what we can do for ourselves, is to try to become strong women, who are not under the control of a man or the family.

My grandma used to work as a teacher, she used to tell me “I worked and I could earn money so I could decide to buy things for myself” but then she also says that I need to learn how to be a good housewife. My mum she told me that when she was a child she wanted to study but her family made her stop and work. She wanted me to have the opportunity to learn. When I started working, I had a lot of friends who guided me with their experience, to become a full woman who doesn’t allow other people to decide for her life.

I can say that a lot of Cambodian women are afraid of change, if it is in a way that they are not used to. They are afraid to be judged by their family, by society, especially the neighbors, they gossip on each other. I don’t like to say negative things on this country, but everyone knows that, the gossip… This happens a lot here. Here in Cambodia what the neighbors say is really important. Here everyone knows their neighbors, it’s good because when you have a problem they can come and help you. But when you have a lot of mean people around you, you go crazy listening to them being mean to your daughter.

“Getting married is not the most important thing in your life, you can be single and successful, it’s ok”

What I want to recommend to women in Cambodia is to learn, a lot, as much as they can. Don’t listen too much to what the people around are saying about you, you are beautiful in your way. And don’t think about having a family so much, because you have a ton of things to do before you have your own family. You should study hard, work, gain experience and find opportunities for yourself, to show society that women can do whatever they want. Getting married is not the most important thing in your life, you can be single and successful, it’s ok.

The legal age to get married in Cambodia is 18, but in the countryside some girls get married very young, this is illegal. Some of my friends they got married when they were 17. They are impressed now that I have a good job, but they don’t know how hard I worked for it. Some old people say I am already too old to get married. Now, some of my friends who got married young wish they could be single. When I was in high school, one of my friends got married with a rich man and the teachers were really happy about that. They can say that they are happy for her, but I thought it was a bad influence for the other students, it sends the wrong message. Plus, she stopped studying and never went back to school.

“Being a teenager here isn’t easy, there are a lot of rules that you have to follow, especially women”

When I was a kid I had crazy dreams! Because I saw a lot of people around me, who were 18 or 19 and they were getting married and they were saying “oh, she has a rich husband”, so that’s what I wanted too, to have a rich husband. So it’s very different from my dream now, completely different! I never dreamed about jobs when I was a kid.

I was born in town, so the way they treated boys and girls when I was young, it was ok, it was not very unequal. But when I became a teenager, then it was completely different.

Being a teenager here isn’t easy, there are a lot of rules women have to follow. For example, when you are a woman you have to do the housework. The men, even if they have time they don’t do it, they can lay down and play with the other boys, they can sleep, but not the women. You have to wake up early and wash the house, the clothes, and make food. The boys and the girls they have the same obligation to go to school, but when we go back home, only the girls have to do the housework. The men, they do nothing. I saw once in my friend’s family, the boys were trying to help with the housework but the women said “no, you are a boy! You’re not supposed to do it”, they don’t let them help.

I talk with my cousin and brother about how they treat women because they are teenagers and sometimes they talk about “bad women”, so when I hear that, I say “you shouldn’t judge women like that, you should respect women, this is how you become a good man”. Now they understand, they don’t talk about the “bad woman” anymore. I try to talk to people about it every time I have a chance. Because women are also human, they should just be treated as human.

If I had been a boy I might not have stayed in Battambang. When I finished my school, I wanted to go to Phnom Penh to study, I wanted to be an auditor, that’s why I chose accounting. But because I am a girl, my family did not allow me to go. They thought I would become a “bad woman”.

“Don’t look down on Cambodian women”

To be honest, foreigners don’t think Cambodian women have high knowledge. I mean, some men from other countries they like that kind of women because they can control them. Old men can find young women here. Of course, some couple love each other, but a lot of people just want to have fun or want money, or to go abroad.

I want to tell those people: “don’t look down on Cambodian women, you don’t know them, you should respect them and give them time to learn something new if they don’t know, and give time to be with them and understand them because nobody is perfect and you are not the best person in the world either, there are things that they know that they can teach you.”

What the men can do, we the woman can do too. We are not weak.

“Talking about rape in Cambodian language is really rude, so we don’t really say that word in Cambodia”

The Khmer Rouge killed a lot of people with knowledge. This is why the generation after the Khmer Rouge, they weren’t really thinking about gender equality, because they were not really educated. The Khmer rouge killed all the intellectuals.  The war had a huge impact on the development of the country, I can’t imagine how bad they treated women during the Khmer rouge, I heard a lot of bad things, they harassed women, raped them and killed them. Like my grandmother’s sister, she was a Miss Cambodia in the 60’s, and I heard my grandma saying that the Khmer rouge did a lot of bad things to her before they killed her, especially rape. She didn’t really used the word rape because talking about rape in Cambodian language is really rude, so we don’t really say that word in Cambodia.

If I got raped, I think I would go to the police but also to an NGO, I would feel safer with an NGO rather than the police. The police is corrupted and they don’t really care. Whatever you ask them to do, you have to put money under the table.

In Cambodia if a rape happens, some people will judge the woman according to what she was wearing saying that she was trying to get men’s attention or because she was out a night.

Also here, if you get raped, then it’s really hard to get a husband. Because here they give a lot of importance to virginity. It’s like when you have a boyfriend, your family will always try to separate you because they don’t want you to have sex. If you have sex, you have to get married. And if you have sex and you break up then you are a bad girl, and the people around you, especially your neighbors, they will say bad things about you. And sometimes your friends too, and then everyone talks about you. I don’t think having sex with boys is bad, we are human all together, so why not?

“It gets me tired sometimes”

There is a Cambodian expression, they say a man is gold, if it gets stained, you just wash it and it’s still gold, but if a woman does something bad, she’s a smelly fish, if she is doing well then she’s just a woman. It’s horrible. A lot of people say that when you have a bad daughter, it’s like you put a jar of smelly fish inside your house. Because when a woman does something they think is bad, it impacts the whole family. But then, no matter what the boy does it won’t impact the family the same. It gets me tired sometimes. This is very unequal. It makes me feel bad.

4 thoughts on “Choosing education over marriage”

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