Written by Vicheth Sen.

A recent report shows how impressive Cambodia’s economic growth has been, being one of the few countries in the world with GDP increasing eightfold over the past 25 years. On top of that, last year Cambodia graduated from a low income to lower-middle income status and is projected to move to upper-middle income status by 2032. This enviable economic growth, however, has brought forth several important questions: How equitable is this growth? How fluid is Cambodian society during this economic transformation?

My recent field research in Cambodia afforded me a valuable opportunity to listen to the life stories of many Cambodians, three of whom are women who ‘made it’ – moving from poor family origins to professional careers and a more financially stable life. These are the women who were born after the Khmer Rouge genocide and grew up during Cambodia’s political and economic transition. One major commonality among the three women is that each of them was the only child in their family who went on to finish university and achieved their current occupational and social status.

In particular, the male-dominated view of women as ‘the guardians of Cambodian cultural identity’ since the French colonial period has imposed a heavy socio-cultural burden upon women, limiting their opportunities to be the agents of their own life and to contribute on equal terms to national socioeconomic development.

What can one learn from their life stories of transitioning from marginalised family status to their current social positioning? What can their stories tell us about the societal aspect that has accompanied the economic growth Cambodia has enjoyed over the past 25 years? These questions are significant within the context of Cambodian society, which has been characterised by many scholars as one in which social and cultural reproduction is its distinctive social feature. In particular, the male-dominated view of women as ‘the guardians of Cambodian cultural identity’ since the French colonial period has imposed a heavy socio-cultural burden upon women, limiting their opportunities to be the agents of their own life and to contribute on equal terms to national socioeconomic development. Has the country’s opening up to the regional and global socio-cultural values and economy offered some space for women to negotiate this socio-cultural burden and allowed them to embrace increasing opportunities for social mobility?

Three important lessons may be learned from the life stories of the women I talked to. First, education and employment are the social fields where women have a shot at ‘getting ahead’ in society. It is important to emphasise that these opportunities are underpinned by the strong and persistent commitment and attitudes of parents and other siblings toward the value of education. They also require the women’s personal attitude and perseverance towards pursuing further education. For these women with meagre economic capital, improving their social status can be accomplished only by accumulating education as cultural capital. Employment is the next field where women realise how far their personal capability can take them. By capitalising on their capacity – combined with their hard work, commitment, and persistence – they are able to build their careers and rise up the occupational ladder in a male-dominated social space.

Second, family is the primary social space where constant struggle and negotiation  takes place. Parents, who are constantly influenced by the broader community, exercise the community-driven social control over their daughters regarding ‘traditional’ gender roles and expectations. While very often older siblings in the family come to the rescue – serving as the buffer between the parents and the women – the women have to prove themselves to their parents in different ways. One of these is through building their personal capability (i.e., by being a hard-working, capable student) as a source of leverage to negotiate with their parents. Besides proving their intellectual capacity, these women have proved their physical endurance, engaging in manual labour as if they were men. In a sense, they have to transcend ascribed gender roles and ‘traditional’ expectations to prove to their parents that they are able to do anything as well as men can. One striking familiar revelation by married women in particular, however, is that they need to balance both professional careers and motherhood, an aspect that Cambodian men do not consider nearly as much.

Third, as alluded to earlier, community/neighbourhood is a social space where ‘traditional’ social norms, gender roles, and expectations are enforced. Nearly four decades ago, Seanglim Bit presented an important observation about the patterns of social control in Cambodian society: ‘Gossip and rumours are used at a social level as an effective and sometimes very destructive means of indicating displeasure with the individual and are a pervasive feature of society, both urban and rural.’ Today, based on the experiences of these women, this form of community/neighbourhood-oriented social control continues to exert its influence on parents to make sure they keep their daughters within the expected ‘traditional’ social norms and values. This pressure comes particularly from those parents whose children are not capable of achieving as much as these women have. For these women, to resist this form of social control is to ignore it altogether and to continue to build their capacity and chart their life course the way they want to.

Cambodian women’s experiences of social mobility, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds, are marked by constant struggle and negotiations with ‘traditional’ socio-cultural values and gender roles expected of them. While Cambodian society is not static, women need to continuously exercise their capacity as agents, wrestling with ‘traditional’ gender role expectations to chart their course in the social and occupational space. To re-situate their social standing, they need to use their reflexive agency over multiple social sites to acquire resources or capital necessary for social mobility – a task that demands courage of these women.

What they may have learned is that the nature of their socio-structural circumstances is significant but not deterministic. They simply need to interact with constraints and opportunities in the social structure to craft their own biography and achieve their goals. The process of women’s social mobility is an example of the dynamic interface between the socio-culturally embedded structural forces and their agential deliberations.

Vicheth Sen (@vicheth) is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. Image credit: CC by Sam Sith/Wikimedia Commons.


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