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Empowering Girls in Cambodia Starts With Dormitories

Female university students in Cambodia are often unable to find housing and are thus excluded from higher education. Dormitories give girls a place to live and a support system that breeds self-confidence and cooperation, says Alan Lightman of the Harpswell Foundation.

Written by Alan Lightman Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
In the dorms run by the Harpswell Foundation in Cambodia, female university students get to learn life skills alongside their academic training. Courtesy of Alan Lightman

In 2004, I met a courageous young Cambodian woman who changed my life. Her name was Veasna Chea. Overcoming great hardships and scarcity, including the murder of her father by the Khmer Rouge, Veasna managed to graduate from high school in the 1990s and then receive a scholarship to a leading university in Phnom Penh. But her hardships weren’t over. Veasna and a handful of other female students had to live for four years beneath the college building, in the six-foot (2m) crawl space between the bottom of the building and the mud, because there was no housing for female university students.

When I met Veasna, a decade later, the universities still didn’t provide dormitories for their students, except for one small dormitory at the agricultural school. That situation was not a serious problem for male students, who could (and can still) live for free in the Buddhist temples or rent cheap rooms in the city. But those options are not open to female students. Thus, because of the lack of housing, many young women in Cambodia – and especially the 80 percent living in rural areas – are effectively excluded from higher education.

After Veasna told me her story, she and I started work on creating a dormitory for university women in Phnom Penh. I went back to the U.S. and raised the money for it, the first such facility in Cambodia. That was the beginning of The Harpswell Foundation. Today, there a few more dormitories for university students, but still not nearly enough to cover the demand.

In the 1970s, Cambodia endured one of the most brutal genocides of the 20th century. The country lost an estimated 2 million people, a quarter of its population at the time, killed or starved to death by the Khmer Rouge. Especially targeted were people with education, who were considered a symbol of Western decadence and elitism. Today, Cambodia remains the poorest country in Southeast Asia.

How does one begin to rebuild a country after such devastation? Through education and leadership, especially the education and empowerment of women. Numerous studies by the U.N. and other international organizations have shown that the education and empowerment of women is the single most effective way to help developing countries.

Our mission at The Harpswell Foundation is “to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and Southeast Asia.” Inspired by Veasna’s story, our first dormitory and leadership center for university women was completed in 2006, our second in 2010. Together, the two facilities house a total of 80 young women. Both are located in Phnom Penh, where our students attend 20 different universities. Our facilities provide free room and board, free medical coverage and tuition assistance. Each facility has dormitory rooms, kitchens and bathrooms, a library and an information technology room with computers connected to the internet.

But we give these special young women much more than free room and board. We’ve developed an in-house academic program emphasizing leadership and critical-thinking skills. The program includes English lessons, analysis of national and international news, debate, analytical writing, lessons on Cambodian history, Southeast Asian geography and government and comparative genocide studies. After our second year of operation, our students were first in their class at several of the major universities in Phnom Penh. Only a few years before, these same students were living in one-room houses without electricity or plumbing and faced a future of hard work in the rice fields and an arranged marriage before the age of 18.

An essential part of the program is the powerful sisterhood that develops among the students. They live together, cook and eat together, study together and support one another emotionally and intellectually. This close community experience is at least as vital as academics in the empowerment of these young women. In living and learning together, students develop self-confidence and poise. They understand in a visceral way that women are valued, that women are strong, that women can make a difference in the world.

Today, we have seven generations of alumnae. Our graduates are working as lawyers, as project managers in nongovernmental organizations, as journalists, as financial managers, as staff in government ministries, as teachers, as business entrepreneurs. Many of our graduates have received scholarships for post-graduate study. Many now have master’s degrees. All are dedicated to becoming leaders to benefit their country.

One graduate, Sokngim Kim, class of 2012, said, “Before I came to Harpswell, I just stayed in one room. I never cared about what’s happening in the world. [Now], I can see that the world is bigger. It’s not only one room.” In May, Sokngim will receive an engineering degree from the University of Georgia in the U.S. When she finishes, she will go back to Cambodia and build roads and bridges.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Women & Girls.

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