"Now I am an independent person and I can stand alone."
This statement speaks for itself, like the young woman who declared it, a soon-to-be Education First Cambodia (EFC) graduate, has learned to do. Its context, however, adds power. As Kong Chanty’s words imply, women, unlike men, are taught to be dependent. Cambodian men have always been allowed academic and career goals, while women are traditionally relegated to domestic roles. This gender inequality is reflected on the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index (GII): Cambodia ranks towards the bottom, 112th amongst the 157 countries (UNDP, 2016, p. 208). Even women who do set out on an academic path are constrained by culture, tradition and family pressure (Thon et al. in Maxwell et al).
Yet recent governmental policies have signaled a shift. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was ratified in 1992, women were recognized as ‘the backbone of the economy and society’ in 2008, and in same year the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) developed its third five-year strategic plan, for the first time including a focus on ‘education of women and girls, attitudes and behavior change’ (Maxwell et al). Critics assess these policies as nominal, but EFC is one of the NGOs bringing them to life.
EFC fights the poverty and antiquated gender norms that constrain even the brightest young Cambodian women by nurturing a tight-knit and encompassing scholastic community. EFC now supports 30 exceedingly bright, extremely poor young women at university, and they are excelling. All of its Women Scholars have good grades, much-improved English and computer skills, and greatly improved self-confidence, critical thinking and presentation skills. Some have excelled even more.
One such student is Phidor. Both of Phidor’s parents are subsistence rice farmers who live a world away from Phnom Penh but somehow paid for Phidor and her three siblings to study while they were young. Exceedingly bright, Phidor managed to make her way to Cambodia’s top public university as an Environmental Science major. Now in her final year, Phidor maintains a 3.6 grade point average at a university where the grading is such that most are happy with a 2.0. Phidor has excelled in her Environmental Science and English studies, and even more impressive, she was selected to travel to Japan for a program on biodiversity.
Phidor is one of several EFC students who applied this year for an extremely competitive scholarship offered by SHE-CAN, which each year selects a few female Cambodian students for a four-year full scholarship to a U.S. college. Applying to SHE-CAN is a difficult and rigorous process, involving a written application and then five rounds of interviews and presentations. Some of EFC’s students were selected for interviews and made it through the first two rounds. But Phidor made it through all five rounds, with her fifth round involving a presentation on the topic of global overpopulation to 30 people. In order to study in the U.S., Phidor must get a high score on the International English Language Test and the SATs, plus do a community service project, all before June and all while she is also working on her senior thesis.
Clearly Phidor has big goals ahead, but she has already accomplished a lot – and the EFC community has helped her do so. Studying in the US would be incredible; it would expand Phidor’s studies as well as the perspectives and goals of her classmates by demonstrating the good that can come from striving. EFC’s job is to support young Cambodian women, but there’s nothing more powerful than young women supporting other young women. Independence through a healthy dependence – EFC’s definition of collective.
How to spread this understanding throughout the country? To improve Cambodia’s ranking on the Gender Inequality Index? Maybe an EFC student will figure out how…
TW Maxwell, Sokhany Nget, Kunthy Am, Leakhna Peou & Songly You (2015)
Becoming and being academic women in Cambodia: Cultural and other
understandings, Cogent Education, 2:1, DOI: 10.1080/2331186X.2015.1042215
United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2016: Human
Development for Everyone (8 March 2018), available from