#19 hope
Noémie Audibert

Cambodia’s Mighty Girls

In Cambodia, Khmer girls are supposed to be gentle and obedient. A young woman in shorts is tackling this ideal with her prowess on the football pitch.

When Nipha Chheun shouts her commands from the touchline of the football pitch, the boys listen carefully. Only 23 years old, she is already the coach of the male U14 team of Cambodia’s renowned Phnom Penh Crown football club. In Cambodia it is hard for young women to pursue their dreams and goals, as society tells them they are destined for a future as mothers and wives in the home. Girls are not encouraged to play any sports at all; they are instructed to be quiet and gentle. Nipha needed a lot of self-esteem to become a successful athlete, and football helped her develop this self-confidence and become a role model for many other girls in Cambodia – a country still suffering from its past.

The social fabric of Cambodia has been woven out of dark years of colonization, wars, and genocide. An estimated two million children, women and men – or a quarter of the population – have been killed by execution, disease, starvation and forced labour under the Khmer Rouge regime. Years of violence and isolation from the world has caused ripples that are still being felt throughout the country and within the population. Decades later, the altering effects on the country’s inhabitants still affect today’s children and youths.

Since the Paris Peace Accords marked the official end of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War in 1991, the country has been healing from a period of violent conflict and is now relatively peaceful. Yet in spite of the major economic and social transformations that have taken place, overall development has been slow and people still live in austere conditions. According to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), children are among Cambodia’s most vulnerable groups and face a wide range of threats to their safety and livelihoods.

…52.1% of all Cambodians are under 25 years old, so financial responsibility falls to the youngest segment of the population.

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. With average wages of US $0.50 per day in rural areas, poverty is very widespread and well below the international poverty line. According to USAID, 80% of the population live in rural areas and 52.1% of all Cambodians are under 25 years old, so financial responsibility falls to the youngest segment of the population.

Nipha Chheun is a young, 23-year-old Cambodian woman. The story of her childhood is similar to that of a million other children in Cambodia. Yet, in a way, Nipha’s story is unique as well.

…the scarcity of resources forces parents to decide between sending their children to school and putting food on the table.

Nipha grew up in a very poor family in the province of Banteay Manchey in northwest Cambodia with her mother, father and three siblings. Her father was a violent man, often beating Nipha’s mother and tying the children together to prevent them from defending her. He did not support the household and spent his time and money on gambling and alcohol instead. The family often struggled to procure enough food. There were some dark days when they would only eat one poor meal of plain rice or noodles. At the age of eight, Nipha worked on a farm for 70 cents per day. She then became a construction worker, exhausting and hazardous work for a child. At the age of 12, Nipha and her family found themselves homeless. Yet she managed to continue going to school every morning.

In rural areas, the scarcity of resources forces parents to decide between sending their children to school and putting food on the table. Many children are sent to work at a young age. In 2011, UNICEF reported that one third of Cambodian children between the ages of five to seventeen were engaged in labour. The lack of employment and opportunities, the low wages in Cambodia, and the attractive wages abroad is leading more to consider leaving the country to find work. This has turned Cambodia into a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking, according to the SHE Rescue Home organisation.

Together they earned US $50 per month that they sent home to their family.

So at the age of 13, Nipha and her older sister, just 14 at the time, decided to seek better paying jobs in neighbouring Thailand to support their family. Nipha and her sister were smuggled across the border on the back of a truck, both overwhelmed with feelings of fear as they entered Thailand illegally. They stayed for six months, working for a family as domestics. Together they earned US $50 per month that they sent home to their family.

Nipha recalls her time in Thailand as a traumatic one. Their employer was an abusive and violent person the girls came to fear. Nipha’s face is grave when she thinks back on the twelve-hour days she and her sister were forced to work. “We were nothing more than slaves,” she says, adding that they were also beaten every day. In view of their appalling situation, they decided to run away and return to their home in Cambodia. They left at midnight, walking and sleeping on the street for days, maybe weeks, before reaching the border where the police caught and arrested them.

“No time to sit and talk, dream and hope. No time to be a child.” Nipha Chheun

“During that time, I did not know what life was. Growing up, I knew I had to go to school, work, and help my family. Every day, sadness came to me. Sometimes, we had no food. We had breakfast, but no lunch. Or we had lunch, but no dinner. It was the same for my older sister. We grew up together, but we did not have much time together. No time to sit and talk, dream and hope. No time to be a child.”

Once they returned to Cambodia, an organisation based in Battambang took care of her and her sister with the approval of their parents. For a while they lived in a shelter where they received regular meals and were sent to school every day. One day, Nipha woke up and found a letter from her sister explaining that she was going back to Thailand so her little sister could follow her dreams, get an education and eventually aspire to a better life. That memory still brings tears to her eyes. Her sister’s sacrifice at the age 15 fills her with respect and admiration.

The first time she kicked a ball was one of the very few happy moments of her childhood.

To make her sister proud and honour her sacrifice, Nipha worked hard at school and discovered a new passion for football. The first time she kicked a ball was one of the very few happy moments of her childhood. She remembers the feeling of freedom; the more she played, the more her head and her heart were emptied of all of her worries. It started as a hobby, but slowly the desire to become a professional and a coach emerged.

Nipha joined the SALT Academy (Sports and Leadership Training), a non-profit organisation based in Battambang, to pursue her aspirations. The organisation strongly believes that sports such as football have great power to impact the lives of individuals and educate people. Its Mighty Girls programme aims to empower girls, promote their rights, and tackle gender discrimination in Cambodia. Created in 2010, the program cares for vulnerable girls aged 12 to 18 from rural communities across the northwest region of Cambodia. Girls at risk of trafficking, early marriage, or dropping out of school are integrated into a comprehensive support system. They are provided with a safe space and environment, football training and advanced education.

Nipha was one of the first beneficiaries of this new program. “The Mighty Girls were a family to me. I felt like SALT protected me, but also provided me with a lot: the opportunity to go to different countries, to see different things, to get so much more knowledge and to meet a lot of different people. This was so different from how I saw the world when I was much younger,” she says. During that time, Nipha was often selected as a member of the female U14 national football team and participated in tournaments and competitions that took place all over Southeast Asia. Although the Federation of Football for Cambodia is actively promoting the participation of women in football, the gap between male and female teams is still prominent. Above the age of 14, there is no opportunity for girls to play football professionally yet.

…girls are praised for being a Srey sopheap (gentle girl) and derided if seen as too strong or outspoken in public.

Cambodian society is deeply rooted in a restrictive and hierarchical culture rife with gender issues. Though young women in Cambodia are increasingly gaining access to educational opportunities, they still face significant barriers to full participation in social and political life. Strong cultural norms, centred on concepts like Chbap Srey (“Rules for Women”), lay out a set of principles for girls and women, which dictate that their place is in the home and promote deference to men. This ancient code of conduct was taught in schools until recently. Only slowly have perceptions changed. In the provinces, girls are praised for being a Srey sopheap (gentle girl) and derided if seen as too strong or outspoken in public. Above all, young women are cautioned not to engage in any activity that could damage their chances at marriage – such as playing sports that could darken their skin, risk injury, and (some believe) damage virginity.

…for girls to play football in Cambodia is to challenge nearly everything it means to be a woman in the country.

Given these strong and predominant social codes and norms, for girls to play football in Cambodia is to challenge nearly everything it means to be a woman in the country. It takes time to spur change within communities and standing up for their right to play football and to be respected on and off the field requires a great deal of courage from these young girls.

“When I was a Mighty Girl, people would say bad things about us because we were girls. We heard it so often that we didn’t even care about it anymore! Things have changed since. Today, people here are amazed by what we do. People always want to ask me questions and meet me because I am the only female coach at my football club.”

At 23, Nipha is now the coach of the male U14 football team at Phnom Penh Crown FC, one of the most important football clubs in Cambodia. She also runs football activities in several schools and remote communities around Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, to encourage girls to play football and to find inside themselves the strength to be who they really are.

Nipha has come a long way from the young and frightened little girl whose only option was to be trafficked into a foreign country on the back of a truck in order to sustain her family. She is now confident in her future and dreams of one day becoming a football instructor for FIFA. With the help of Mighty Girls, Nipha has gained self-confidence and self-esteem that allows her to be a strong and independent woman succeeding in a male dominated arena.

She hopes that other girls will follow her path and embrace their personal ambitions no matter what society, their parents or cultural traditions have to say about it – for dreams and happiness are worth fighting for.

Photos by SALT Academy.

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