Cambodian women diving deep, going far

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Menno de Block and Chan Kunthea. Photo supplied

There is a saying in Khmer that “women cannot dive deep or go far”. The meaning is that women should not stray too far from their traditional gender roles.

But when Menno de Block, an entrepreneur from the Netherlands, took a good look around his adopted country, he saw that this lesson couldn’t be further from the truth.​ So he teamed up with Chan Kunthea, 36, an employee at Just Associate, an NGO that works worldwide to provide legal support and capacity building for human rights activists, to interview Cambodian women and tell their stories.

The result is Diving Deep, Going Far, released this month, a novel inspired by the commitment of women to fight for a better future.

“Writing this book really opens eyes . . . Talking with a lot of women in Cambodia has made me see what their lives are like, what the pressure from tradition, family and environment is like and how impressive it is that they are trying to do something about that,” de Block said.

Kunthea joined the project because it fit with her work with women, helping them understand the root cause of gender inequality in society.

“I decided to join Menno because I think in Cambodia there are not many documents that mention women, especially their experience and leadership . . . When we can compile these experiences, both men and women can learn from it,” Kunthea said.

The story conveys the struggles of four young Cambodian women who have faced challenges in getting an education amid poverty. Their ambitions are hampered by societal expectations.

Their storylines are derived from interviews with 25 Cambodian women from various professional backgrounds, including factory workers, NGO staff, government officials and so on. Among the four main characters, “Nary” is the central character and the story follows her as she grows into adulthood.

As a child, she watches as a doctor caters to rich patients before seeing the poor, giving her hopes of becoming a doctor who treats patients equally. She is told by her aunt, however, that a woman must become a nurse, not a doctor. Then when she sees the foreign minister on television, answering questions from the press in multiple languages, she decides she wants to be a minister, only for her aunt to tell her: “politics is no place for girls”.

Despite the opinions from her aunt, Nary’s parents still gave her their support and encouraged her to follow her dreams.

While many of her cousins were dropping out of school, Nary found university life to be exciting. She discovers that she has always been a “feminist” who found the traditional reliance on chbab srey (“women’s law”) to be too paternalistic, and the discrimination against women in so many aspects of society. She also found the love of her life who she believes to be a feminist and will always support her stance. However, after they got married, everything shifted 180 degrees when her mother-in-law criticises the way she raises her son and when her husband broke his promise in taking care of the family.

Eventually, she decided to get a divorce despite knowing how Cambodian society judges the single mum. Regardless of the many hardships in life, Nary overcame them all and became the executive director at the organisation called Youth Network for Change.

The upbringing of another character, Nika, is unfortunate, with an abusive alcoholic father and an ill mother. This problem leads Nika and her sister to scavenge plastic and aluminium cans to support their little brother and sick mother. When their classmates discovered their occupation, they shunned her. However, Nika does not give up and chases her dream of becoming a singer.

Because there are many books written about the Khmer Rouge and the country’s civil war, many foreigners view the Kingdom through this lens, instead of looking deeper into what is really happening in the country today.

“People who come to Cambodia would see the country through the lens of what they’ve read about the Khmer Rouge . . . but it’s not the only thing anymore. There is much more going on right now, and it is a shame that people who come to Cambodia as tourists still look around their surroundings as if the Khmer Rouge had just happened,” said Block.

The book is initially being published in English, at a cost of $15, while 10 percent of the profits will be contributed to projects that support women leadership in Cambodia. The Khmer version of the book will come out in a few months with a more affordable price for locals.

“I would like the Khmer version to be spread and read as much as possible . . . so I will try to sell it at the cost price,” he said.

Despite the fact that Diving Deep, Going Far is just a novel, it is still an important book for many Cambodians, because it showcases the life stories and experiences of young Cambodian females who persistently fight against the norms of the society.

“I hope the readers, especially the women, will regard it as a reflection of themselves in order to be able to analyse and find appropriate solutions to solve problems in their lives. Moreover, I also hope that the foreign readers would be able to understand the lives of many Cambodian women and their struggle to overcome the society’s norms.” said Kunthea.

Diving Deep, Going Far is available for pre-order on Amazon and will be in bookstores mid-June for $15.