Her community and she herself need to know she can be more than a shopkeeper and a man's wife
I still vividly remember the day I got to know a passionate girl who still wanted to continue her study badly but she had to quit school because she is the eldest daughter who should rather work to support her brothers’ education. She told her story while tears were also falling. I could not help it, but cried as well. It was when I was in grade 7. We were selling some snacks during a religious ceremony in a pagoda. When there was no one buying our food, we happened to be discussing about schools. She asked me what grade I was in. I said 7. She said “Oh…, I could have seen you again at the high school, you know, if I were to continue my studies.” Her eyes turned red. I knew something was wrong. “What grade are you in now?” I asked. “6” she answered. “But I won’t be going to high school because my parents have already decided that I have to quit,” she added. Her tears started to fall. My heart broke. I knew at that moment that again it is because she’s a girl. Still I asked her “why” just to confirm my assumption. “My parents cannot afford. I have two other brothers who are in grade 5 now. I need to help my parents earning money to support their education. We will have to buy them a bicycle and new clothes for them next year,” she replied. “But why not for you as well?” I asked. “They don’t have money. I’m the eldest sister. I’m responsible for my younger siblings. I have to sacrifice for them.” She cried harder at this moment. I then cried as well.
If you have noticed, there are two barriers here--poverty and also cultural factor. Her family was poor and her parents prioritize her brothers to having higher education.
Patriarchy was there long time ago. In the past, only boys got to receive education at pagoda with monks as tutors. In this modern time, there are schools for both boys and girls, but not everyone think girls should have high education. Yet, there is this strong burden placing on them to be responsible for the family’s welfare, especially when she is the eldest child. Generally, people believe that she does not need high education because she won’t go anywhere far away from domestic sphere. Her future is a wife of a man who will be taking care of her. But before that, she should just help her parents earning money along.
It is kind of understandable about the history of how women took turn to be the breadwinners or part of this role. After the Khmer Rouge, because most men were killed and the male survivors are mostly disabled or crippled because of landmines, many wives became the ones responsible for family welfare. Yet, what I don’t understand about my country is since when that girls or women are considered to be the most suitable for performing jobs that the public could get to see her out-look. If you go to a market in Cambodia, you see mostly girls or women who are selling stuff. Men come buy things while teasing her along. Most people find it weird to see a male seller/shopkeeper except for some middle class Sino-Cambodian with their big grocery stores. General perception is that female sellers attract more customers.
As the result, middle class and lower class family who face financial crisis often go for picking daughters to quit schools and join them earning money.
It means that even now there are enough schools for boys and girls, the alternative of pursuing economic income can be a strong barrier for why middle and lower class parents are not encouraging their daughters to go for higher education.
Hence, first solution I think is urgent is to change the perception that girls only should do all this little little business and boys should go for higher education to become a doctor or an engineer. Both the elders and youths should be pushed to start thinking differently, to change the perspective. For youths, this could be done at schools/universities and for the elders; this could be done through small community discussions.
Developing women leaders could be another tool to break the conventional role of girls and women. If there are more women working in higher/official positions, parents would start to see values of high education. Institutions similar to AUW where girls and women are encouraged to think out of the box, in this case not only about economic aspect, are highly needed. We want to let all girls and women recognize that they too have intelligent capacity to pursue different societal and political roles, not just a shopkeeper and a man's wife.