“We are not encouraged to play any sports at all; we are told to be quiet and gentle.”
My name is Nipha, I am 23 years old and I am the coach of a male football team of Cambodia. In Cambodia it is hard for young women to pursue their dreams and goals, as society tells us that we are only made to be mothers and wives. We are not encouraged to play any sports at all; we are told to be quiet and gentle.
“When I was 8 years old, I worked on a farm for 70 cents per day”
I grew up in a very poor family in the province of Banteay Manchey in northwest Cambodia with my mother, father and my three siblings. My father was a violent man. He often beat my mother and tied us together so we couldn’t defend our mother. He did not support the household and spent all his time and money on gambling and alcohol. My family struggled to have enough food. There were some dark days when we would only eat only one meal of plain rice or noodles. When I was 8 years old, I worked on a farm for 70 cents per day. Then I became a construction worker, it was exhausting and very dangerous. At the age of 12, me and my family found ourselves homeless. But I managed to continue to go to school every morning. In rural areas, poverty forces parents to decide between sending their children to school and putting food on the table.
“We were nothing more than slaves. We were often beaten, for no reasons…”
When I was 13, my older sister and I decided to leave home and go to Thailand to make more money and support our family. We were smuggled across the border on the back of a truck, both overwhelmed with fear as we entered Thailand illegally. We stayed there for six months, working for a family as domestics. Together we earned 50US$ per month that we sent home to our family.
It was a traumatic experience . Our employer was an abusive and violent person.We were forced to work 12 hours a day. We were nothing more than slaves. We were often beaten, for no reason. So one day, we decided to run away and return to our home in Cambodia. We left at midnight, walking and sleeping on the street for days, maybe weeks, before reaching the border where the police caught us and arrested us.
“No time to sit and talk, dream and hope. No time to be a child”
During that time, I did not know what life was. Growing up, I knew I had to go to school, work, and help my family. I was sad every day. Sometimes, we had no food. We had breakfast, but no lunch. Or we had lunch, but no dinner. With my sister, we did not have much time together. No time to sit and talk, dream and hope. No time to be a child.
When we returned to Cambodia, an organisation based in Battambang took care of me and my sister with the approval of my parents. One day, I woke up and found a letter from my sister explaining that she was going back to Thailand so her little sister could follow her dreams, get an education and eventually have a better life. That memory brings tears to me when I remember it. My sister was 15 at this time, she sacrificed herself for me. I respect and admire her for that. For my sister, I worked hard at school and discovered a new passion for football.
“The first time I kicked a ball was one of the very few happy moments of my childhood”
The organization I was staying at offered football activities. The first time I kicked a ball was one of the very few happy moments of my childhood. It started as a hobby, but slowly I wanted to become a professional and a coach.
But above the age of 14, there is no opportunity for girls to play football professionally in Cambodia yet, I still believed that one day I would be a professional coach for the FIFA.
“We are forbidden to be part of any activity that could damage our chances at marriage – such as playing sports that could darken our skin, injure us, and damage our virginity”
By playing football I know I am challenging traditional roles for Khmer girls.
In the provinces, we girls are told to be a Srey Sopheap (gentle girl) and disapproved if we are seen too strong or too outspoken in public. Plus, we are forbidden to be part of any activity that could damage our chances at marriage – such as playing sports that could darken our skin, injure us, and damage our virginity – according to some people…
“Things have changed now. Today, people here are amazed by what we do”
When I was playing football, people would say bad things about us because we were girls. We heard it so often that we didn’t even care about it anymore! Things have changed now. Today, people here are amazed by what we do. People always want to ask me questions and meet me because I am the only female coach at my football club.
“… it is worth to fight for our dreams”
I am now the coach of one of the most important football clubs in Cambodia. I also run football activities in several schools and remote communities around Phnom Penh to encourage girls to play football and to find inside themselves the strength to be who they really are. I hope that other girls will follow my path and embrace their ambitions no matter what society, their parents, or cultural traditions have to say about it because it is worth to fight for our dreams.