Hidden by a fort of folders, 18-year-old Srim Thida doesn’t look up when the door opens. There’s a revision timetable pinned above her desk — a patchwork of apple-green Post-it notes — and a stack of Mon Khmer–to–English dictionaries that threatens to topple over at any moment. To her right, one of her friends, Vong Chenda, sits on the edge of a bunk bed swinging her legs back and forth and singing in a low voice as she studiously strums a guitar with her left hand. On the lower bunk, Kong Nirodey scribbles furiously in a notebook. It’s 3 p.m., and only one of the four roommates is missing — a hurriedly discarded cardigan slides off the side of her bed onto the floor. “She left in a hurry,” is the only explanation offered. “There’s never any time to waste here.”
They’re not kidding. This group of 75 women between 17 and 23 years old from rural Cambodia cleared a careful selection process to earn the opportunity to reside in one of two Phnom Penh dormitories, called “DT” and “TT.” From the time their alarms go off at 5:30 a.m. until the moment their eyelids fall shut over textbooks at 12:30 a.m., they follow a schedule of university lectures, homework and chores alongside requirements such as analytical thinking, public speaking and nutritional education. They debate Donald Trump’s relationship with Kim Jong Un, the threat of a nuclear attack and the need for a free press — just weeks after the Cambodian government announced the closure of one of the country’s most respected newspapers, The Cambodian Daily. There’s even a “hall of inspirational female leaders,” where the dorm residents practice yoga under the watchful eyes of Marie Curie, Mother Teresa and controversial Cambodian anti-sex-trafficking crusader Somaly Mam, who has faced allegations that she has faked her story.
We’re bridging the gap by building safe spaces for them.
Moul Samneang, Harpswell Foundation
The DT and TT dorms are part of a broader trend of dormitories that are sprouting up to provide intermediary accommodation for young Cambodian women who are quietly demanding — and taking — opportunities long denied to them. The numbers of applicants to DT and TT are on the rise. Harpswell Foundation, the U.S.-funded group that runs the two dormitories, has recently opened a third, for “alumni,” which will welcome 12 new residents in July. And local schooling program Happy Chandara — founded by Toutes à l’École, a nongovernmental organization — is preparing to open its first dormitory along similar lines.
“The concept is simple,” says Moul Samneang, Harpswell Foundation’s country director, explaining that while Cambodian boys can go to university, girls often can’t because parents are worried about their safety. “We’re bridging the gap by building safe spaces for them to stay while they study and enter the workforce.”
The young women living at DT and TT are selected for their “leadership potential.” In addition to free room and board, they receive support with scholarship applications to finance a university education abroad.
Law student Ly Nhokchin, 21, from Prey Veng — a rural province roughly 60 miles east of Phnom Penh — came to DT dormitory three years ago. Getting there was tough. She competed with more than 200 other applicants from high schools across the country for one of 17 places in the all-female dorm. During the application process, Ly Nhokchin was asked, among other things, what she would do to develop Cambodian society if she were minister of women’s affairs. Over the past three years, she says, both she and her family have grown. “My family has learned to adapt to my independence,” she says. “By living here, I’ve been able to make them trust me. I’m like, don’t worry about me — I know English, I know what I’m doing.” Since moving into the dorm, which she describes as “a big house of sisters,” Ly Nhokchin has traveled to Japan on a scholarship and is about to start a six-month educational program in Indonesia. In September, she will head to the U.S. to study intellectual property, with support from the Harpswell Foundation, which will cover expenses while helping her apply for international financial assistance.
Chhorn Rada, 28, stayed at TT for the duration of her psychology degree studies, from 2010 until 2012. She comes from Svay Rieng province, where, she says, girls “don’t ever really learn how to fend for themselves.” Chhorn Rada now serves as coordinator for the new alumni house aimed at bridging the gap between leaving university and living solo. Rent is subsidized, and there are support systems such as emergency loans available in case things go awry, but the residents are essentially independent.
The purpose of the dorms is to help the young women develop the skills they need to return to their communities and transform rural Cambodia into a gender-equal society, says the Harpswell Foundation’s Moul Samneang. “It’s already working,” she adds. The first of the dormitories, DT, opened a decade ago; TT opened in 2010. But just as it took 10 years for an isolated effort to turn into a broader movement, the impact of these initiatives is only now becoming apparent, as alumni assume leadership positions on local council boards and international NGOs. In a country where 1 in 5 girls is married before 18, former dorm residents are waiting until they’re 28 or 30 to get married. “It’s phenomenal progress,” says Moul Samneang.
What the dormitories are doing is critical for the nation too, suggests Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia, a nonprofit that works on developing female leaders in the Southeast Asian nation. When the women return to their families and communities and take on leadership roles, they also inspire “a new generation of empowered young women in their wake,” she says. “Everyone benefits.”
It’s not always easy to convince parents of the benefits of the dormitories — one girl who applied last year without telling her parents and won a spot couldn’t come because her parents wouldn’t let her, recalls Moul Samneang.
It’s such cases that push Ly Nhokchin to work even harder, and to take every opportunity she is offered. “We have this saying in the dormitories,” she says. “‘If not now, when?’”
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