Cambodia

We won’t be silent anymore

Kosal Khoeut

Battambang, Cambodia

“After my dad passed away, my mother told me I don’t know how to read and write, I want my children to know better”

My name is Kosal and am 27 years old. I live in Battambang in Cambodia. I run a business with my partner in Battambang. We have opened a few months ago, in the center of Battambang, a photography gallery and restaurant. We use the benefits of our business to support the education of vulnerable children in remote villages around Battambang city [link website for more information here].

My hometown is about 12 kilometers away from Battambang, my family is still living there. I am from a family of five children. I have four sisters and one brother. I am the second child. My parents are farmers, they have a rice field and they also grow vegetables and fruits. My family is poor. My mother never went to school, she still doesn’t know how to read and write. My papa has got more education, he can read and write and he even knows some French that he learnt at school when France colonized Cambodia. My mom didn’t attend school mostly because of the Khmer Rouge genocide led by Pol Pot. At this time no one could go to school. The Khmer Rouge hated educated people, they forced the people to work on the rice fields. Even after the war she couldn’t go to school because she had a lot of sisters and brothers and there was not enough money to send all the children to school. Back in my mom’s time, it was complicated for girls to go to school. Boys had more rights, they had more values than girls. Girls were considered inferior than boys. People believed that it was not important for a girl to go to school, they believe a girl’s place was at home and that they only need to know how to cook, how to take care of the chores and the younger siblings. Traditionally, men are the ones who take care of the household financially, so women don’t need to know more than they need to be a good wife and a good mother.

Besides, girls are usually not allowed to travel far away from their home and since in the countryside there are no much schools – especially after primary schools – girls cannot continue to go to school. It is a cultural thing but parents are also afraid because rural roads are not very safe for girls. In my family some of my relatives disapproved the fact that my sister was going to school. They believed that she should just get a husband to have a better life and have more money. In grade 10, my sister quit school…My father got sick and many people said that my sister should stop school to take care of him. They tried with me too, but I refused to listen to them, I wanted to study. After my dad passed away my mother told me “I don’t know how to read and write, I want my children to know better”. The neighbors didn’t understand her choice. She was poor. They were telling her that her children should work at the farm, find a job or get married to get money and be able to support her financially. She didn’t listen to them. It was very hard for her but thanks to her I finished high school and went on at University to study rural community development at University. I graduated and later on I became a social worker.

I told them “You have rights, don’t be silent”.

For my first job as a social worker for an NGO, I was assigned to raise awareness among vulnerable women from underprivileged rural and remote areas about social and health issues such as HIV/Aids, STDs, reproductive health, women’s rights, importance of education, domestic violence etc. My job was to give them knowledge and make them aware of their rights. I told them “You have rights, don’t be silent”.

From 2009, I would say that attitudes towards the condition of women started to change a bit. The old people started to realize that girls should get an education too. Nowadays, women are more and more speaking up. Before they were risking a lot if they raised their voices to denounce unequal treatments, abuse and violence. They could lose their child and/or be renounced by their families. Now women can even divorced from their husbands without becoming a shame for their family. Women are more aware of their rights now.

To make the society changes the way it views women, and to see more female leaders in Cambodian, women need access to education.

“If our society respected gender equality and women’s rights then we would be able to see as many women as men leading high position”

Women are slowly reaching position that were before only accessible for men. For example, we see more and more women in the politics. Before, our leaders were exclusively male. But this is changing too. In Battambang, there is ten communes and I think two chief villages are female. It is not enough yet but still it proves that slowly men are accepting women as leaders. Ideally, of course, it should be 50/50. From what I see, even now, it is mostly men who occupy high position in the society whether in the business sector, the social sector or the political sector. I hope this will change in the future. I am not saying that this situation is the fault of men only but the way our society works prevents women from accessing high leadership position.

This is a result of the fact that girls are not encourage to go to school or to pursue higher education. They may have the right to education but in practice so many cultural, societal and traditional factors put an obstacle to their education.

In the past, it was even more accurate that only boys could pursue higher education whereas girls were told that their place was in the house. That’s why there isn’t many women leaders in our society, nowadays. If our society respected gender equality and women’s rights then we would be able to see as many women as men leading high position. In this context, it is hard for women to climb the social ladder and reach a high career position but we have to try. To make the society changes the way it views women, and to see more female leaders in Cambodian, they have to have access to education. When given the chance, women can do as well as men. Men may not be happy to have women taking decisions, they will for sure be surprised and reject the idea at the beginning, but it is only because we live in a male-dominated society. It doesn’t mean it cannot change.

“Education always seemed very important to me to help me make my way out of poverty and later use my knowledge to develop my community and help other poor families”

When I was a child, it was really important to me to learn to read and write. I didn’t want to be illiterate. Even at a young age, I knew it was important for me to be able to make an informed decision. I didn’t want to find myself agreeing or signing things that I didn’t understand. I knew that the ability to read and write would give me power, would allow me to make decisions on my own and would prevent me from getting hustled. Education always seemed very important to me to help me make my way out of poverty and later use my knowledge to develop my community and help other poor families.

I wanted to learn. I knew my place was not at home cooking and taking care of the chores. My place was out there. I had to see what was happening out of the house, I was curious and hungry to learn. I was impatient to meet people from different places and different backgrounds because it is only when you confront your thoughts and opinions with others that you can develop your knowledge and critical thinking skills. Not everyone likes to be challenged though.

“I would cycled 12 km every day of every year to go to school, against my family will”

When I was younger, some of my friends stopped school and start working. Those who could make a small living used to tell me that I should quit school and earn money instead. But I stood up and pursue my education against all odds and criticisms. I recall that some of my friends told me that I would never be able to be my own boss or be a leader, because I was a girl. Today, I run my own business. To prove them wrong, I kept focus on my goal, I kept fighting and I didn’t let them make me stop study or gave up
on my goals.

Many people tried to stop me…

When I was in grade 7, my aunt wanted me to stop school so I could take care of my sick father. My sister already stopped school to stay home with him. I remember crying a lot, I even scarred my arms. I kept going to school. I made it up to high school with good scores, but then again they tried to make me stop. My high school was in Battambang city, away from home, a 12km ride on a bicycle every day. My dad was seriously sick, he needed constant care. My dad lost his leg to a landmine when he was younger.

[Landmines in Cambodia are the product of a civil war that spanned three decades, culminating in a genocide led by Pol Pot in the late 1970s. Millions of landmines still lie dormant in Cambodia. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined areas in the world; some estimates run as high as ten million mines in a country of 11.5 million people].

A shrapnel lodged in his body and years later got infected, he was about to die. His medical treatment was very expensive.

It was hard to stay focus at school…Nobody motivates me either…The thing is that they wanted me to stay home and take care of him but also in case he would die. They were scared that he’d pass away without me being there. My dad was sick for 11 years, he died in 2012. My dad’s illness was a huge burden on my family. Neither my sisters nor my brother finished school, instead they took care of my dad and worked at the family farm to bring money to the family. I am the only one who finished school. I would cycled 12 km every day of every year to go to school, against my family will, with my heart and my mind filled with fear that my dad would pass away.

“In Cambodia, women carry the reputation of their family so they are expected to behave in a way that will not bring dishonor upon the family”

In my point of view, of course, life would have been different if I were born a boy. First, we are naturally different but then I would have enjoyed more rights, that’s for sure. I think girls have the same abilities than boys whether it is physical or intellectual. Of course, there are things that we cannot do like them, especially in terms of strength. Maybe it will take us longer or we will have to train harder to have the same strength than them but at the end we can do it too, differently only. Men, for instance, cannot get pregnant, even if they try hard! Women have the power of life and it requires strength too that no men will ever experience nor understand.

In our society, girls and women are oppressed a lot. If a girl or even an adult woman does something considered wrong by the society, like smoking for example, she will be considered as a bad woman. If a man does something wrong no one will judge him. In Cambodia, women carry the reputation of their family so they are expected to behave in a way that will not bring shame upon the family. It may explain why a man can drink, smoke, go out at night, go to KTV, cheat on his wife and so on and not be worried about people judging him. It is not fair, rules should be the same for both gender.

“The voices of women are always silenced in Cambodia”

For change to happen in Cambodia, I think first, girls need to know their rights. And second, we should educate men to respect women and treat them as equal to men. Some men are already open minded and advocating for women’s rights and gender equality in Cambodia at different level of the society. It is very good because gender equality cannot be achieved without them being involved in that fight. But others just don’t want women to be equal to men. They cannot accept the idea that women have superior position than them. If you try to get information on that topic [sex], people think you are a bad girl and that you have inappropriate ideas in mind.

The voices of women are always silenced in Cambodia. It is in our culture that women keep things inside and don’t speak about it. But it can be dangerous, they can take the wrong decision and put their lives at risk. For instance, about sexuality. No one wants to talk about it. Old people are shy speaking about sexuality. They do not advise young people to use condoms for example. For me it was the same, I was shy speaking about it. But then I got a job in an NGO working with women and that aims to raise awareness on sexual health issues. I took a training and then I was assigned to go to communities and teach women how to have safe sexual activities. I taught them how to use a condom. We were doing the demonstration with a piece of wood! At first I was so embarrassed but I got more and more confident and I knew how important that mission was. I worked with KTV girls, it was important to teach them how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and/or sexual diseases.

“When I was young no one explained me how sexuality worked, it was taboo”

When I was young no one explained me how sexuality worked, it was taboo. I learnt from the radio, sometimes there was one hour on-air program about sexuality, women’s reproductive health etc. I liked to listen to that program, it drove the old people mad! In their mind, I was into sex, they didn’t understand that I just wanted to learn more about myself, about my body. If you try to get information on that topic, people think you are a bad girl and that you have inappropriate ideas in mind. But if you don’t know how it works, how your body works and all, how can you protect yourself? And when you know too much about it they assume that you have had sex before – which, in Cambodia, It is not well perceived for a woman to have sex before marriage. I remember that when I ran workshops about sexuality and health to women, some of them told me that I should have had a lot of experiences to talk about it like this. I had to explain them that I took training and learnt it all from books.

“In Cambodia, there is more KTVs than pagodas!”

In Cambodia, there is more KTV than pagodas. Many girls and women work in KTV to send money to their family. Sometimes the family forces the girl to work for a KTV so she can earn a living and send them money back, sometimes the family don’t know that their daughter works for a KTV. That explains why many parents do not allow their daughters to live and study far from them, especially in the capital, they are afraid that she’ll end up working as prostitutes or that she will become too liberated and start flirting with men and have sex.

Because people don’t know how to protect themselves, especially in that sex industry, many girls undergo unwanted pregnancy. Abortion is legal in Cambodia but not accepted by our society (See article of the Phnom Penh Post). Women have to reproduce. Many girls don’t know that abortion is legal and they fear that people will know that they got pregnant so in many cases they try to abort themselves, they buy some pills for that. But those pills are sometimes too strong and they get complications and have to go to the hospital. For that it is important to teach people, to let them know about their rights.

“Because poor families struggle a lot to earn enough money to support their household, they are not much interested in issues such as women’s rights, gender equality, or girls’ right to education”

In the city, women have more opportunities, they are more empowered, but in the countryside things are harder for women. In rural areas, people mindset are still very traditional. In the countryside, life is very hard and most of the people are uneducated and very poor. Things don’t change easily there. Besides, communication is not easy in rural areas. Information do not always reach remote areas and people are not aware of the latest developments. Sometimes, information is even censored. Rural people may have TV or the radio, they may even have internet on their phones, but the main mean of communication is by word of mouth. Old people are highly respected and their opinions influenced a lot the community.

Also, because poor families struggle a lot to earn enough money to support their household, they are not much interested in issues such as women’s rights, gender equality, or girls’ right to education. Every day, they have to survive which let them very little time to think about those issues…

“It will take time but if we all unite we can change the attitude of the society towards women and improve our condition”

Cambodian women nowadays are stronger, they speak up more. They are not all silent anymore. And people in our society start to listen to them. I think my generation understands more the concept of gender equality and girls and women are more aware of their rights. Other people like me are involved in that cause and are trying to change people mindset. It will take time but if we all unite we can change the attitude of the society towards women and improve our condition. The situation need to change, women need to enjoy their full rights.

We are strong, we are smart, and we will not stop fighting to get what we deserve.
We will not stop raise our voices.
We will not give up until society treat us equally.

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