Cambodia

Getting off the beaten track

Sinath

Battambang, Cambodia. 

“I am so proud of my parents because they are farmers, but they still provided us with the best education they could afford”

My name is Sinath, I am 33 years old. My parents are from Ostuk village which is a small village about 25km from Battambang town. During the Khmer Rouge, my parents were already married. Upon the insisting demand of the villagers, my dad signed up as a soldier. He didn’t really like it…A while later he got very sick, he suffered from Malaria and almost died. At this time my parents decided to escape and live in one of the Cambodian-Thai border refugee camps.

I was actually born in a refugee camp, I spent 4 years there and then we came back to Battambang. I don’t remember much about that time only that it was scary. Our grandparents and some of our relatives died, my family was really sad and just really wanted to flee the country.

I am so proud of my parents because even with low income revenue, they still managed to provide us with the best education they could afford. I think education is everything, it’s everything to start with. I think my parents did very well regarding that, because with the history, the war, the problems they had and everything, they still provided the best education they could for me and my siblings.

“When I was a little girl in the refugee camp, it was very scary for me”

When I was a little girl in the refugee camp, it was very scary for me, because of what I could see there, I felt so oppressed, I was just a little girl. I was scared of everything, and even now it is painful to recall that time, what it was like, the feelings and the scary things that we had been through. Everyone worked, everyone just survived.

Then we moved to Battambang. My father worked for 22 years with the UN and World Vision. He worked very hard to be able to send me and my siblings to study and get a good education. I am very proud of him. There are so many people who do not get that opportunity so I am very proud of my parents.

My parents started to put me in school. I really wanted to do something to help the community. I didn’t want to feel what I had felt like in the refugee camp. It was really a bad time for me, I don’t like this feeling. When my father went back here, he got a good job at World Vision and whenever he went to the community, he used to bring me with him to join the workshops and all the activities. This really gave me some idea of what I really wanted to do in life.

“In some families, because we are women they don’t think we should have great ambitions”

My parents never treated me differently because I was a girl. I think that I grew up with really good conditions, besides all of that. My family really gave me everything.

But it’s not like that in all families. In some families, because we are women they don’t think we should have great ambitions. For example if a girl graduates high school and if she wants to study more in Phnom Penh, because there is no major university here in Batttambang, then her family will automatically say “no”. She has to stay there because she is a woman so after she gets married she has to stay home to take care of the babies, so she doesn’t need to have a high education. It’s not like that in my family but this is something I really see a lot in Cambodia and I don’t like it.

“It’s really not common in Cambodia to be doing what I am doing (…) but I think that I’m doing something that is very important for myself, and it is my life”

I married my husband, we knew each other for 4 years before we got married, and after that we lived together for 8 years. Now I have moved to Siem Reap because of my job, but also because after you are married for a long time, sometimes you need some space for yourself.

My family is talking about that, they say “you are a woman, it’s not good to go away from your family”. It’s really not common in Cambodia to do what I am doing, and my family is not really happy about that actually, even if they are very open minded. They say so many things to my face, I understand that but I think that I’m doing something that is very important for myself, and it is my life. It’s not really a bad thing, sometimes I just need some space. My family always asks me to move back, every time! They are parents. I think it’s the same everywhere, they are always used to tell you to “do this and do that!” But I like to do my own things.

“There are not a lot of woman leaders in Cambodia”

There are not a lot of woman leaders in Cambodia. It’s not really common. I think now they are starting to understand more and more. Back in my time, we would graduate from school and get married. The important thing was to take care of the children and take care of the house.  But now, some of my friends they do more, and myself as well! I think I can be a model for them and this gives me the motivation to do more and to be brave enough to do what I think is good for myself. But generally, it’s still not very common. I have had to overcome a lot of challenges to be able to do that.

“We don’t have a good education system. (…) after they graduate, most of the time, the young people can’t find good jobs”

Maybe people are more open in the city, like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang to some extent but in the rural areas I’m sure that 80% of the women get married early without graduating from school, stay home and take care of the children. They can work but I don’t think they can really do the things that they want to do.

As I said, education is everything. Here in Cambodia, we don’t really have a good education system. After they graduate, most of the time, the young people can’t find good jobs. The parents say, “even if you go to school, you graduate, what will you do next? Nothing! So then, you don’t need to go to school.” This is the main reason why they put a stop to their children’s education. And this is true, after their studies they can’t get jobs. This is also why a lot of Cambodians try to find a job in Thailand, because here they don’t have jobs, even when they have the skills.

The situation of women has changed, in my opinion. Maybe not a lot but step by step. The influence of outside can really change the mindset of the parents, especially those who live in the city because they can really see more. But in the countryside, I’m not sure.

“For them, sending their children to school is a waste of time”

For example, in the place where my parents live now, it’s very nice, but for education, it’s not very good. They may have schools but it’s very far from the place where people actually live. And the teachers, sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t come! This is something that doesn’t motivate the parents to send their children to school. For them, sending their children to school is a waste of time, and it’s true in terms of the real life. But in the city they are lucky because they have more opportunities and they have more choice. Today, what I wish for girls is that they get a better education. And also that they have more freedom to decide what they want to be.

I work with art and I think art can really express some things and that we can try to educate more people with art.

I started working with the Phare Ponleu Selpak Association (PPSA) after graduating from Khemarak University with a Masters in Law and Management. My first position was as an assistant, moving to become an administrator, and soon succeeding in becoming HR Manager. During my studies at the university I joined a music class at PPSA, and it was here that I fell in love with Phare and the arts. Now, 10 years later, I am Senior HR Manager at Phare, Performing Social Enterprise (PPSE) in Siem Reap and working for the organization has been the most amazing and exciting experience of my life. As a woman in Cambodia, I think it is important to live to learn and share. I believe arts can change the world and bring about social change – I am so proud to work for an organization who also shares this mission.

“When I am with my friends, I really think that foreigners see Cambodian women like shit. They think all the girls are prostitutes.(…) They don’t value women”

Since I live in Siem Reap, I have seen a lot of very bad things. I’m sorry to say that. When I am with my friends, I really think that foreigners see Cambodian women like shit. They think all the girls are prostitutes. Most of the times that makes me really angry. They don’t value women.

In some areas of Siem Reap sometimes tourists and expats have a more positive view of women, I mean in terms of women working. For example before, I was working in Battambang, I worked with a lot of people who really valued women and promoted gender equality. And we try to promote that but it’s not easy, because the mindset of most families is that women have to stay home, so you don’t need to do a lot or go to school. This is why we have problems in Phare (Cambodian Circus), we don’t have a lot of women artist, we only have men. Because there is the problem of the body, the physical contact with the other circus artists, and the fact that you are not allowed to go out at night if you are a woman and not married.

Everyone thinks very badly of people who are together when they are not married. People judge a lot. Their mindset and their culture influence the way they think and they are not open, I think this needs to change.

“In our culture we don’t like to talk about sexuality, about the problems of women and those things. People always like to hear about everything but not the bad things, not the sad things”

Between women, we don’t talk much about women’s things because in our culture we don’t like to talk about sexuality, about the problems of women and those things. People always like to hear about everything but not the bad things, not the sad things. Most of the people like to share all the fun things but not the problems, it’s our culture.

It’s like sexuality, we never talk about that. Not at all, so it’s very scary. There is no sexual education at school. Everything was new, no one had told me about that. It was scary, you don’t know what to do, you are lost. Even nowadays, there is no sexual education at school.

And then when women have a problem, it’s very sensitive, I really think they would keep it to themselves, they would keep it quiet. I don’t know of any space where women can meet and share those things. For me, if I have a problem, I don’t know of any place where I could go to get help. If there are such places, we are not aware of them. When I first got my period, my mother explained everything to me so it was ok, but for sexuality, no one talks about that, I learnt from the experience.

“They say they are not trying to control women but the things they do show that they actually are”

It is important to educate men too. The first thing is that they need to know that we have the same rights. We are equal, men, women, we all have the right to decide for ourselves, this is something they should know. I think actually they know, but they don’t care. We should also educate men, this is why I think education is everything. We need very good education, starting with the young generation and if they learn all of that then I think it can change. I saw some NGOs who work on gender equality but the government I’m not sure.

There was that women banned by the government from the filming industry and they even stopped her from performing because she was too sexy (See a Phnom Penh Post article about it). Those concepts are closed minded. They say that they are not trying to control women but the things they do show that they actually are. They talk a lot about gender equality but the things they do is very different. All of that is political, and we don’t see a lot of women working in politics. We are all the same, men and women we can do the same

I think women can convince people better than men, this is something special about women. If you are trying to convince someone, I think women can do more, this is something more natural for women. Now I am trying to change things, I think it starts with myself, and then I can influence other women. For me what’s important is to start making changes with yourself first.

I often hear men saying that a woman shouldn’t do this or that. I would like to encourage and support all women to be brave enough to do what they is best for them.  Women shouldn’t not give up on their dreams but they should go for it. I believe dreams come true when we fight hard enough for them.

 

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