“Now I walk with my head up (…) because I know who I am”
My name is Kimleang Chonran. I am 19 years old and am from Battambang. Since the age of 14 I am part of the Mighty Girls female football team, one of the most renowned female football team in Cambodia. I am the captain of the team. My profile is quite unusual for a girl in Cambodia. I am educated and I play football. I hope my story can inspire other girls.
It has not been always easy to make my family and my community accept my choices. Sometimes people’s words would hurt me more and make me cry. But because of what I had to face I have become a stronger person. Now I walk with my head up and a smile on my face, I let mean words slides on me, because I know who I am.
I am currently studying in grade 12 and will soon pass my final exam. I will then pursue my studies at the university in Phnom Penh and study International Relations.
It is rather unusual for girls in Cambodia to leave their hometown and pursue their study after the secondary level and far from their home. I had to convince my family. At first, they were not keen to let me go, they worry for my safety because as a girl it is not safe out there. I know I am lucky to have the chance to get an education and go to university. Usually, girls from poor family, like me, quit school early and get married or start to work and earn money to support their family.
My parents also believe that a woman’s place is at home but they also think that if in the future they don’t have enough money to take care of their children, only knowledge can help us get a good job and a good life. They want me to learn how to face challenges on my own. Sometimes they let me struggle so I can learn and get stronger. So even if they don’t like the idea of me going to the capital to study, they understand the importance it represents for my future.
“Boys were very mean to us. They would come to watch us play and would laugh and mock us during our whole training. It was harsh”
I grew up with four brothers and sisters. We were poor. My dad was a soldier and my mom a housewife, she is also working on a farm a bit. My dad had serious alcohol issue and often lifted his hands on my mom. This period of my life was hard. My siblings and I, we all thought of quitting school at some point to help our family. Whereas some did quit school to work and bring income to the family, I kept going to school. If I hadn’t played sport I think I would have dropped from school.
I started playing football for fun then I realized what it could mean to me. One of my closest friend dragged me in playing football. I was very scared to play football and boys were not friendly with us. They didn’t think we would be capable of playing. Some tried to talk us out. They said things like playing football will darken our skins and that we wouldn’t be attractive anymore or that we will get bigger, all muscled, and that it was not nice for girls. It hurt to hear them mock us or try to discourage us from playing but we kept practicing.
When I asked my parents, they first didn’t allow me to play football. At that time I was taking traditional Khmer dance class. My parents didn’t like it neither. So I talked to them and we made a deal. I would stop taking traditional Khmer dance class and they’d allow me to play football. They didn’t like the idea that their daughter will play football either, but they hated traditional Khmer dancing more than football so they accepted the deal.
My neighbors criticized my parents’ decision and tried to influence them, saying that playing football was not a sport for girl, that it was not a place for a respectable girl.
At the age of 14, I joined an organization in Battambang that provides football activities for the empowerment of Cambodian girls. When we put up a female team together, boys were very mean to us. They would come to watch us play and would laugh and mock us during our whole training. It was harsh. We could feel that we disgusted them, we could feel that they hated us for playing football and wanted to hurt us verbally.
“Now things have changed a lot (…). They all want to play against us”
Now things have changed a lot. We have won their respect because we won a lot of national and international female football tournament. Last year, for instance, we won the national female football championship. Now, they admire our football skills and compliment us. I think we have proved to them how strong and successful girls and women can be and this has shaken their primary views on girls and women capabilities.
One funny thing is that at the beginning, when our female football team was still quite young we were constantly asking the boys to play against us because they were no other female team to play with, they always refused. But now we don’t have to ask any more. They all want to play against us. We usually have friendly games once a week where our Mighty Girls team play against a boy team. Now they are directly calling our coach and asking to play against us but sometimes we have to say no because we are overbooked! Our level is as good as them, even sometimes better than some of the teams, we often win. Boys have learnt to accept us on the football pitch, to respect us and to value us as skilled football players and as girls.
“I know that women from any country face challenges (…). I know it is not unique to Cambodia”
I run football-based community outreach activities in my community and around Cambodia. Through football based games we teach life skills lessons to underprivileged children such as hygiene, HIV/Aids, gender equality, women’s rights, and so on. Every week, I also lead football training in communities of Battambang.
It is very rewarding to organize and lead those activities for other kids, especially for those who have almost nothing. Most of them face so much adversity in their life and they are only children. I feel grateful that I can bring a bit of light in their life. Life is hard for them but I hope I help them a bit.
I hope I can be a role model for them. I would also like to encourage girls and women around the world to be empowered. I know that women from any country face challenges, maybe the challenges are different from one place to another but they exist. I know it is not unique to Cambodia.
I believe that if we want to change something we should stand up and raise our voices, share our ideas and try altogether to improve the situation for women. I believe we all have to unite to make the world a better place.
“We are unequally allowed to dream and chose our life and what we want to be”
As a Cambodian girl and from what I have witnessed, I would say that most of the time it is not safe for women. The situation is unequal whether at school, at home, in the sport sector, in the politics, in the media and so on. We are unequally allowed to dream, to choose our life and decide what we want to be.
In my village, like in other villages in Cambodia, there is a lot of boys and men addicted to drugs or alcohol, most of them stop school, wander around and look for troubles. When we walk on rural roads we encounter many of them and they make us feel so unsafe. It happens often that girls are attacked on their way to school. I also know too many girls are victims of rape in my country. Luckily it never happened to me.
If I’ve ever had to face such an aggression I think I could seek for help and protection because I am educated, I know how the system works. This is not the case for underprivileged girls for instance, they are not aware of their rights and are afraid of going to the police to report attacks. One thing they are scared of is that everybody will know that they had sex, even if obviously it was without their consent, and will blame them for it. They are ashamed of speaking about it even if they are victims. (See article on rape in Cambodia) Plus, when a girl has been raped or sexually touched, and the community knows about it, it becomes difficult for a girl to find a husband and be considered like a good person. The blame is on her. Most people will consider that the whole family is bad and will avoid them. The second reason they are afraid of speaking up and seeking help, is because of the corruption. If the victim of a rape has enough money then they can solve the problem, charge the perpetrator and put him in jail. For poor family, on the other hand, it is quite impossible to get justice so victims of rape or sexual touching will rather stay silent.
Every girl in Cambodia face the same type of discrimination but some are given tools to fight back, others are unarmed and suffer more.
“Comparing our countries and our situation is important because it pushes us to analyze our own situation and find solutions”
Thanks to sport I gained a lot of confidence which allowed me to represent my country abroad. I travelled a lot and met many other inspiring girls and women. I travelled to join football tournaments but also to represent Cambodian girls and women on international stages.
I like to share experiences and knowledge with people who come from different countries. From meeting people from different part of the world I learned that people from developed countries may think that Cambodian girls and women are victims and that we are afraid to speak up and change our society to get more rights. And people from other developing countries may think that we are luckier than them. It is really a matter of perspectives. From one place to another, from one person to another, they will analyze and judge the situation for Cambodian women differently. But most of them don’t really know what challenges girls and women are facing in Cambodia, neither do they know much about things that girls and women are doing in Cambodia to improve their situation.
Comparing our countries and our situation is important because it pushes us to analyze our own situation and find solutions, it also helps develop our critical thinking skills and give us the opportunity to learn new approaches to empower girls and women and tackle gender inequality. Yet, we have to remember that we are kind of lucky even if we face challenges and discriminations. We have to remember that in some other places things are harder for girls and women.
I raise my voice for other girls and women in Cambodia who are not yet ready to speak up.