Lesson from Cambodia: Why Female Role Models are Key to Women’s Empowerment

By Victoria L. Petitjean

The case for sex and gender equality has been widely made, and maybe more than ever in recent years with people focusing particularly on women still lacking in important decision-making roles. One important point that has been made is that we, individuals, societies and even businesses need to understand even more fully this matter as a fundamental of socio-economic sustainability.

Maybe even more crucially and as a priority, women must believe in themselves. In a recent TedX speech, Sheryl Sandberg, mother and Facebook COO, talked about how we have indeed made progress in terms of women’s rights (including access to education, work, healthcare and respect). Yet, recurring daily examples from all over the world reveal that not only can we not become complacent of our relative progress in these matters but women themselves must also focus more fundamentally on one core aspect: the need to believe in their own dreams and capacities.

As a First Lady and as the only woman leading the team responsible for the drafting of the Universal Human Rights Declaration, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her biography:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home […] they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he (sic) lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.

This statement underlines what is at the very heart of what social scientists, including feminists, have long recognized about human power and social change – that empowerment is about women realizing the “power within” themselves and acting individually and with others to exercise “power from and with” each other, thereby gaining “power to” act as agents and fundamentally change the way conservative masculine-oriented societies function.

How do we, women, do this? Many women are aware of this challenge and want to put it into practice. Becoming aware of our own incredible capacities is the first step, and from there it’s a long leap to putting them into practice. Perhaps we have been so influenced by deeply engrained gender inequalities that we actually perpetuate inequalities through our words and behavior. How do we shed this?

The importance of (female) role models for women.

Last year, I was working for 9 months in Cambodia, for a local NGO focusing on women’s rights. Living and working abroad has made me realize how much in Cambodia, as in the majority of countries around the world, discrimination inflicted on women remains expressed in both obvious and more subtle fashion (from great physical violence against women to more emotional, silenced aggression) and is either directly or indirectly accepted and perpetuated by women themselves.

During my time in South East Asia, one core project I worked on was the microfinance of locally produced handicraft and food, by Cambodian women. In just a few months, I saw how women, coming from the countryside where they had no professional activity, changed radically and built their confidence exponentially. The provision of small loans to set up their small businesses in the capital, Phnom Penh, changed their perception of themselves as well as by their families and communities.

Getting in the morning to take care of their small business, being in contact with customers and general population, and discovering the capital city opened them up radically and made them that much stronger for leading the lives they realized they wanted. They put money aside to buy a house for their family, they sent their children to school, some who had suffered from alcoholism made the firm decision to stop, they sent money back home to their parents, they bought themselves nice clothes and other items, they bought more and better food for their family, they pushed their husbands to earn themselves more money for their families to afford an even more comfortable lifestyle, their furthered their loan to make their business grow etc.

This was all made possible by the organization and most crucially our Franco-Cambodian business manager who, by her daily support and training, came to understand these women and made them believe in and act upon their dreams and abilities. These women came to Phnom Penh, set up and developed their businesses because they wanted it but also because they were supported in this process, made to believe daily, repeatedly for several months that they could do it by themselves, even if they would have support at the beginning. But maybe they also started believing in themselves as women, wives, mothers and professionals because they finally had amongst them a strong woman (our business manager). She was herself educated in the West (France) where, despite our remaining needs for improving gender equality, we grow up in societies which are starting to recognize how much we have to bring to them. Lets make sure we keep this improving and that every woman around the world benefits at the same time.


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