More Than a Dorm: How A Phnom Penh Organization is Invigorating Women’s Education in Cambodia, One Leader at a Time

By Anna Russo

“Are you serious?” Sivgech Chheng blurts, snickering at me lightheartedly. Her eyes read me for clues on how to react to our conversation’s strange new twist. But after telling her that this question was as real as all the others, it took Chheng, a 2013 graduate of the Royal University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, less than a second to formulate an answer to my prodding question: If you had the opportunity to choose, would you be a born as a boy or a girl?

“I don’t care whether I would become a boy or a girl, because I believe that boys and girls are equal,” she responds. Her voice takes on a more serious tone, “it depends on the society who judges them unequal.”

As a female student in Cambodia, Chheng understands societal injustice better than most. The gap between male and female literacy rates is estimated by the World Bank to be roughly 17 percentage points, compared to an average world gap of only nine percentage points, and no statistical discrepancy in the US and Europe. Cambodia ranks 116 out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum’s educational attainment gender gap coefficient. Even greater gender discrepancies exist for university degree attainment, and these barriers to education are entrenched in Cambodia’s societal norms and enduring history.

Students practice sums in a Cambodian classroom (Courtesy of Creative Commons)
Students practice sums in a Cambodian classroom (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

But Chheng is challenging these norms. A recent service trip to New Orleans during her post-grad year at Bowdoin has strengthened her desire to return to her village in Sihanouk province and use her law degree and experience abroad to help her community. She hopes to work with the US Peace Corps and improve educational infrastructure in her village.

To maintain this hope requires a rare ambition and unwavering optimism – qualities epitomized in the women of the Harpswell Leadership Dorm, a housing program for Cambodian women studying at universities in Phnom Penh, and attributes that both Chheng and Harpswell hope to inspire in a new generation of Cambodian women.

Cambodia lacks both a societal and institutional education infrastructure. Before French colonization, the monastic system was the sole source of education. Young boys would be sent to the local monastery to learn primarily Buddhist dharma, as well as some secular skills, from the local monks. Not only were woman excluded from education, but they were religiously prohibited from any contact with Cambodia’s education class, celibate monks who risked losing their standing in the monastery by brushing shoulders with a woman. Under the French protectorate, a free French education system was established. But when Pol Pot came to power, he attacked intellectualism in hopes of returning Cambodia to a completely agrarian communist utopia. The Khmer Rouge regime dismantled the education system, and thousands of communities were left without a local primary or secondary school.

Today Cambodian education is free but not compulsory. Still recovering from the devastation of the Khmer Rouge, many communities lack schools altogether due to a void of funding and faith in education’s value. Chheng had to move out of her home at age 13 to live with her aunt in the provincial capital because her village lacked a secondary school. But many students do not have Chheng’s special combination of resources, passion for learning, and parental support. “Some of my friends, they abandon school after we go to secondary school, because their parents cannot support their education,” she explained. “Which means that if they can only support one kid to go to school, they will support their son, not daughter.” Children drop out to avoid commutes as long as two hours by moped, to help bring in income to the family, or to avoid being left alone in the village when parents leave for weeks at a time to tend to distant rice fields. When these obstacles arise, many families view their daughter’s education as a harmless sacrifice.

A Cambodian girl walks to school (Courtesy of Creative Commons)
A Cambodian girl walks to school (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Lack of university housing poses a further obstacle to women’s higher education. Most major universities are located in Phnom Penh, but in Cambodia’s agrarian society, 85 percent of the population lives in rice-farming villages in the outer provinces. An education can simply not be obtained while living at home. For men, housing can be arranged in a wat, a Cambodian Buddhist temple. Women, prohibited from being in the presence of celibate monks, are unable to take advantage of this available housing and are left with only the option of renting a room in the large capital city, which proves both extremely dangerous and expensive.

Few women possess the blinding courage characteristic of passionate academic pursuits to brave the streets of Phnom Penh alone. In this regard, Veasna Chea was one in a million—or rather four in seven million. Chea became the fourth woman ever to receive a law degree in Cambodia when she graduated at the top of her class in 1997. Alan Lightman, a humanities professor at MIT, met her seven years later. Professor Lightman discovered that she pursued all her studies while living in a dirty crawl space shared with four other roommates.

Lightman, struck by Chea’s tenacity, established the Harpswell Foundation with the goal of providing housing and an intellectual and supportive community for women. Founded in 2006, the Harpswell Leadership Dorm seeks out ambitious women from rural communities with great potential for leadership and provides them with free room and board, while they pursue an undergraduate education at Cambodia’s elite universities in its capital, Phnom Penh. This has allowed Sreyleak Kun, a peer of Chheng’s at Harpswell and the daughter of rural parents who never had the means to attend university, to pursue an Electrical Engineering degree at L’Institut de Technologie du Cambodge. Kun echoed Chheng’s story: “Most of their parents just want all those girls to stay at home and to do a farm or job as they do. And they always have the concept ‘Girls don’t need to study, because in the future they are still a man’s wife.’ They didn’t motivate us.”

For Kun, Harpswell is far more than merely a place to live. She described the dorm as “an organization that wants to empower all woman students to become a leader in the future.” Beyond providing a safe place to sleep, eat, and study, Harpswell also holds extra English classes, computer training, global affairs discussions, and leadership seminars.

For almost all of the girls, this is the first time they have been part of a community where education is the norm, not the exception; coming in, they have no idea what to expect. “First I feel [it is] a little bit difficult when I stay in one house that has so many people, because we come from different families and provinces, and I think it will be annoying when we live together,” but Kun continues to explain that the community, one that celebrates and fosters ambition, diversity, and friendship, has been the most influential part of her life at Harpswell, “But then I can note that it’s very wonderful when we live together. It teaches me how to adapt with the new people, and I can work with [them] as group.”

Both Chheng and Kun recognize that they have been extremely lucky to be born into a family with parents who value education, a rarity in both of their villages. Chheng grew up in the impoverished rural Sihanouk province, where the local school was bad, “My mom and my dad, they worked their entire life to send all of us to go to school,” She recalled: “Even though I am the only girl, we were treated fairly, we were all sent to school. But my family is different from my friends’ families.” Many Cambodians believe that more scholarship funding to rural families could improve the situation, which now is not enough to realistically change even one girl’s college prospects. Kun echoed this sentiment. She hopes that the government will someday hear her plea: “Also for the government I just want to suggest [to] them that [they] focus on and care about education sector.”

Cambodia is poised to be the next major player on the world economic stage. The Phnom Penh skyline is dotted with cranes elegantly perched atop gleaming half-built skyscrapers: the product of preemptive investments from Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese tycoons hoping to secure a spot on the Phnom Penh real estate market and cash in on Cambodia’s future success.

Meanwhile, the Harpswell Leadership Dorm is making its own investment in Cambodia. In 2003, when the idea of the Harpswell Leadership Dorm was first sprouting, Lightman spoke to a crowd of intrigued supporters at MIT. “Our goal is that our graduates will become leaders of Cambodia,” he declared. “In 20 years we’d like our graduates to be heads of hospitals, government ministers, and directors of NGOs. We’d like to see 200 Hillary Clintons, Sandra Day O’Connors and Oprah Winfreys.” The Harspwell Leaderhsip Dorm, has costs as low as two thousand dollars per student per year, and with studies showing that increased education for girls boosts economic productivity, lowers infant mortality rates, helps eradicate poverty, and supports a stable and democratic political system, Harspwell may be a pioneering investment model in stimulating political and social justice and a legacy of education.

The Harpswell women seem to be well on their way to realizing Lightman’s goal. Khourn Chantevy, Harpswell ’10, returned to Cambodia after obtaining her MA in Sociology from the University of Hawaii with plans to become a Gender Studies professor working in the field of development. Kaing Menghun, another Harpswell graduate, is one of the only female reporters at the newspaper Cambodia Daily. Many other graduates are employed as lawyers, NGO leaders, teachers, and financial consultants.

Regardless of their profession, all are working to serve as role models in the Cambodian community. “I want share my experiences to all new generations and inspire them,” Kun told me, “If I decide not want to work in my country what does my country have to rely on?”

Anna Russo ’17 is in Berkeley College. Contact her at