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23. January 2006

Young Cambodian Women ;© Jenny Lind Elmaco

Jenny Lind Elmaco (2nd from the right side) together with young Cambodian women.

Cambodian Football players ;© Jenny Lind Elmaco

The first female cambodian football team.

Chum and Yiv ;© Jenny Lind Elmaco

Chum, the gymnast and Yiv who is playing volleyball

The Cambodia Women football team ;© Jenny Lind Elmaco

The female football team just before the tournament.

Cambodia - Clinging to Hope: The Trials and Travails of Young Sportswomen of Cambodia

The Women without Borders Team member Jenny Lind D. Elmaco had the chance to meet 5 amazing young Cambodian sportswomen in a recent trip to the country.

Cambodia, home of the beautiful and extensive temple ruins of Angkor Wat, captivating Irrawaddy dolphins, the historical Mekong River and hundreds of pagodas and Buddhist shrines, is home to 13.1 million people who trace their history to a state referred to as Funan, know as the oldest Indianised state in Southeast Asia. The country is bordered by Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, has a fabulous heritage, warm friendly people and an untamed wild landscape. Perhaps one of the most famous accounts of this proud country is their experience of Pol Pot’s "Reign of terror" in 1975. The ‘democratic Kampuchea’ under his tyranny resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people. A visit to the Toul Sleng genocide museum shows stories and pictures of the victims of the mass genocide. Many of them were women, even girls as young as 4 years old.

Today, the country is a constitutional monarchy and boasts of a growing economy and a working political machinery. Yet, with the hierarchical order of the society, notions of power and status condition social and gender relations. In this social order, women are considered to be of lower status relative to men.

But as the World Bank reports, gender relations in Cambodia are undergoing tremendous change. While the culturally defined behavior norms for women, known as the Chba’p, constrain their opportunities outside of the household, economic, social and political developments are opening up new opportunities for them. And as Cambodian women pursue these opportunities, they are becoming a more integral part of the country’s economic and social development. From my talks with young women, I have realized that one of the best ways to empower women in this country is through the promotion of the culture of sports. For centuries, this has been the realm of men but today, women, even in this tiny country in Southeast Asia, have began to make their mark and showed tremendous skill.

I was fortunate to have had the pleasure of talking to 5 amazing young women who are making a difference in their country by proving that women can do sports:
Chum Rathtanak (20 years old)- gymnastics
Yiv Molika (16 years old) and Ngoun Chanboramoy (17 years old), football
Kim Dararoth (20 years old), long jump
Soth Srey Leak (16 years old), hurdles

Here are some excerpts of our conversation:

WWB: What made you decide to engage in sports?

Chum: My mom likes sports. I like it too. Especially this sport [gymnastics] which is difficult to learn. I think that this is the best sport to learn because this is the best sport to show flexibility.

Yiv: In my sport [football], we are pioneers. We only started [playing] 6 months ago. I really enjoy it and I get to be with my friends.
Kim: I like it because I can study for free at the University. Also, I’m happy when I do sports.

WWB: What have you learned from your sport?

Ngoun: During competition, I am very happy and excited. I get to know more friends from other areas, from the other 24 provinces of Cambodia.

Soth: I get to develop a strong body. Also, I really want to be away from drugs and from the ‘black market’. ‘Bad guys’ really try to convince me to be with them. But if I am busy with sports, I can avoid ‘bad things’.

WWB: What were the challenges that you faced in this sport?

Yiv: Often, there is no encouragement. While practicing, I feel like the trainer does not care. Sometimes, I get hopeless. But I love my team. And I want to make my country proud.

Kim: I often have no time for myself. After practicing, I get very tired. But I really want to be a winner. When I win, my family is very happy with me.
Ngoun: There is lack of encouragement from the government especially from the leader of this sport. There is a lack of equipment. Also, the money I get (scholarship) is not enough to feed myself. There is a lack of technical expertise. The trainer only understands a little of the rules. But I don’t want to leave my team. Our friendship is strong.

WWB: What would be your message to young women in Cambodia and the rest of the world, especially those who also want to engage in sports?

Yiv: All young women [in Cambodia] should erase the issue of ‘gender’ in sports. I mean the traditional custom of Cambodia that women should only be at home. We should show that women can be stronger than before – that they can even go abroad and bring [home] the championship. We should promote ourselves.

Kim: Cambodia today is promoting sports but it is still weak. We [young women] have to promote it together. We have to win. We have to promote our country internationally especially today that Cambodia still does not have a young women sports team.”

Ngoun: Don’t be afraid of [having] big arms and hands like a man. Decide to do sports for health, for shape, for you.

This is a challenge to all women to listen to the wisdom of these girls who had the courage to speak their truth. Despite the odds, these young women dream great dreams and believe that they have the power to fulfill them. Real survivors, real women.

After this interview, Women Without Borders was invited to witness the first-ever football tournament in the country. In recognition of the potentials of the young women athletes and upon seeing the deteriorated state of their sports equipment , WWB donated new soccer balls to the female football team. WWB hopes this will serve as an inspiration for young girls to engage in sports and to be the change that they want to be in the world.


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