Filling a Vital Need
Cambodia is still recovering from the genocide in 1975-1979 that killed over a third of its population and almost all of its educated class. It is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with an average income of $1,070 per person (World Bank, 2015). Sustainable economic development is a real challenge, due to limited human resources, high-income inequality, and poor job prospects. As of 2012, approximately 15% of Cambodia’s population live on less than $1.20 per day, and 37% of Cambodian children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition. Over 50% of the population is under the age of 25. Cambodia is working to improve its education system, but equal access to quality education and job training skills is still a major challenge.
Culturally, Cambodian women are considered inferior to men, dating back to the 19th century traditional Chbab Srey, or “Code of Conduct.” This traditional text specifically lays out the expectations for women’s public and private behavior in Cambodian society. The text suggests that a woman should speak softly, obey her husband, and avoid using language that implies that she is equal to him.
Most of Cambodia’s universities are located in the capital, Phnom Penh, where there are no dormitories for women. Men from poor rural families often live free in the Buddhist pagodas or safely rent apartments. However, most women are barred from higher education due to lack of access to safe and affordable housing. For these reasons, only one-third of Cambodians studying past the high school level are women.
When Alan and Elyse Lightman first visited Cambodia in 2003, they met many motivated and intelligent young women who wanted to attend University, but were unable to due to lack of housing. The Harpswell Foundation is filling this need for safe, affordable housing for women attending University. But more than that, it is providing a community for these women, helping them to develop leadership skills, critical thinking, and life-long friends and mentors.