Young Cambodian women’s aspirations–in their own words

I was in Cambodia last week to visit the Harpswell Foundation Dormitory & Leadership Institute in Phnom Penh. I wanted to see what it was doing to achieve its mission of empowering a new generation of women leaders. Specifically, the foundation’s two dormitories enable young women with leadership potential to go to college in Cambodia’s capital, where the universities are located. In the dorms, the young women receive not only free accommodation but also free meals and training in leadership and the English language.

Many residents come from farming families in far-flung provinces, too poor to support a daughter’s education in the capital. All the young women have a palpable desire to master their chosen fields of study and learn about the world around them. All have confidence in their ability to help Cambodia rebuild after the devastation of the Pol Pot regime. All are driven to push their country forward in development. Through the gleam in their eyes, one can easily envision them leading government ministries and building businesses 10 or 15 years from now.

I spoke at length with some residents who are studying for science degrees about how they aim to help their country. The accompanying video clips are their responses to this question: How do you hope to help Cambodia advance?

CHORN SOKUNTHEARY is a fourth-year biology major at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She is the oldest of four sisters. Cambodia has a lot of environmental problems, she says, including people just cutting forests to make way for farms. “We need to learn to protect nature to avoid disasters,” she says. “People living in rural areas depend on the forests and rivers. If the forests and rivers have problems, those people cannot make a living.”

Chorn wants to be a teacher or to work with environmental organizations. She has an internship with the nongovernmental organization Culture & Environment Preservation Association. She is working with ethnic groups living in the forests near the Mekong River who may be threatened by Laos’ plan to build a hydroelectric power plant on the river

BUT KANHA is a fourth-year chemistry major at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She is the sixth child in a family of seven, the youngest among four sisters. All her older sisters are farmers. While in 10th grade, But’s interest in chemistry was sparked by a “nice and kind teacher” who inspired her to aspire to become her school’s top student in chemistry. “Everything around us is all chemistry,” But says.

Green chemistry fascinates But. She wants to learn ways to reduce chemical hazards in products, to recycle waste, and to protect the environment and natural resources. “People in Cambodia don’t like products made in Cambodia because the quality is not good,” she says. She hopes to help improve the quality of Cambodian products so that “people will want to use them and will not have to spend their money outside the country.”

KIM SOKNGIM is a fourth-year mathematics major at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She is one of five children of rice-farming parents in Kandal Province. From June through August 2011, she participated in an intensive English program in Logan, Utah. After she completes her bachelors degree in math in 2012, she will apply for admission to a graduate engineering degree in the U.S.

Kim’s dream is to be a civil engineer, to help build Cambodia’s infrastructure. She laments the poor condition of roads, bridges, schools, and manufacturing facilities in her country. She also decries the destruction of forests in Cambodia and is concerned about the impact of climate change on farmers. She says Cambodian farmers are “feeling the temperature increase and need more water for their farms.”

PHAUK KIMSAL is a fourth-year chemistry major specializing in biochemistry. She attends the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She believes that Cambodia can develop through science, just as many developed countries have. She is the youngest of eight children of rice farmers in Kompong Thom Province and one of a few Harpswell residents with several family members who have higher education.

A brother-in-law who studied chemistry and now has a good job at the Pasteur Institute of Cambodia strongly influenced her decision to study chemistry. A brother is studying for a master’s degree in mathematics in Thailand. One sister also went to college and is now an English teacher.

Right now Phauk is an intern at a water supply facility, learning how to make water clean and running analyses for water quality.

HUN LINA is a fourth-year student at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, where she is studying chemical engineering and food technology. She comes from Oddor Meanchey Province, the oldest of six children. Her father is a nurse; her mother raises pigs and makes rice alcohol for a living.

Hun says her mother encouraged her to go to college. “I have nothing to give you so you have to study so that your future will be brighter. My life is difficult because I’m ignorant. If you don’t want to face problems [as I did], you have to study,” Hun recalls her mother’s advice.

Hun would like to find ways to preserve food so that the abundant produce from the provinces can be available all year round and farmers can earn more from their labors.

CHHON SOPHEA is a fourth-year biology student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She is concerned about loss of biodiversity caused by rapid destruction of forests to make way for farming. She hopes to be able to discover new species in Cambodian forests before they are forever lost. She sees herself working with conservation organizations in Cambodia.

TONG SOTHIDA is a fourth-year math major, another of the few Harpswell residents whose parents have had higher education. Her mother teaches physics and chemistry, and her father teaches history and geography. She says her parents want her to teach mathematics after she graduates from college, but she would like to continue her education in the U.S. or Singapore to pursue a master’s degree.

One unique aspect of the Harpswell dorm is community living, Tong says. Residents need to do housework in addition to mastering their majors, learning English, and discussing Cambodian current events. Furthermore, older residents assist the younger ones, especially in their major fields. For example, Tong teaches math in the dorm.

LOV KIMSRUNG is a fourth-year computer science major at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She is the youngest of five children; her father sells construction materials and her mother owns a small business; neither of her parents have a college education.

Lov says her father strongly discouraged her from going to college. “Women should stay home and just take care of the family. College is a waste of time,” Lov recalls her father saying. But a cousin and two brothers supported her, Lov says, telling her parents that “she’s smart; why don’t you let her find her future?”

KHOEURN KIMLEANG just graduated from the Institute of Technology of Cambodia with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and food technology. In November, she will begin her studies for a master’s degree in environmental engineering at the University of the Philippines, Diliman.

In the meantime, Khoeurn is working on a United Nations Industrial Development Organization project to promote clean and sustainable production practices in Cambodian industries. For example, she has helped Ly Ly Food Industries, a Cambodian manufacturer of snack foods, reduce the amount of waste in their production by modifying the shape of the mixing vessel. The change reduced the waste from 40-50 kilograms per day to only 10-15 kilograms per day, saving about $800 per day in cost of ingredients.

Author: Maureen Rouhi

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  1. Seeing this girls, I am positive about the betterment of Cambodia in the near future.