In my many travels around the world I have come across many courageous people.
But Sovanratana Boung, a young 16-year-old girl from Phnom Penh in Cambodia would have to be one of the most courageous.
At a gathering of more than 200 people, who were mostly foreigners, in the centre of Phnom Penh, Cambodia the young school girl gave an inspiring and passionate speech about the many problems facing women and girls in her country.
And it was impressive.
At just 16-years-old she was able to identify the many forms of discrimination facing women and girls in Cambodia that included harassment, restrictions on women’s movement, unfair expectations around virginity as well as just blatant discrimination. However, what was the most impressive about Sovanatana was her will and passion to speak out about these problems, and her courage to do so in front of so many people.
I was impressed. And I wanted to meet her.
At the end of the event I asked her if we could meet. She agreed and we met at a café in Phnom Penh along with her 23-year-old sister Bunmean where we spent the afternoon talking about the situation of women’s rights in Cambodia and why she was speaking up about it.
It all started when she wanted to volunteer at a library.
Her family told her that they didn’t want her to do it because they were worried. The library was on the second floor of a building, where it was quiet and the person in charge of the library, was a man. They were worried that she might be sexually assaulted.
She realised that she was being restricted in the choices that she could make and the things that she could do, just because of her gender.
‘I really wanted to volunteer,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to be limited in what I can do because I am at risk of sexual assault. I don’t want to be limited just because I’m a woman,’ she said.
She began to read articles and books on feminism and watching videos on You Tube and she started to notice just how much violence and discrimination there is against women in Cambodia. Worst of all, she started to notice how women and girl’s who spoke out against it, were being ridiculed and attacked.
‘We are really discouraged from speaking out. People really, really value women’s virginity, and they say that you have to be gentle, modest and shy. You can’t have tattoos and slut shaming is really common. If a woman moves in with her boyfriend before she’s married then they’ll say that she is a slut. Rape victims still get blamed and there’s not enough people speaking out because they are ridiculed when they do.’
I wanted to know what had led her to speak up when there was the very real possibility that she too, could be attacked and criticised.
‘The internet helps me a lot,’ she said. ‘When I go on the internet and see so many people speaking about their experiences of sexual harassment, this gave me the courage to speak up.’
However, in her efforts to speak up she has faced criticism. When preparing for her presentation, she was criticised and told that she shouldn’t be speaking about women’s rights.
She has also been dismissed by her friends.
‘They don’t take it seriously,’ she explained. ’Which is most likely either because these things have not happened to them or because they had lived with it for so long that they think that it is normal.
‘In Cambodia then when you trying to speak up about women’s rights or women having sexual freedom they say you are just trying to be like the foreigners or change the culture,’ she said. ‘People have told me that I have to live with it.’
But part of what is so impressive about Sovanratana, is that she doesn’t want to live with it. And she’s taking action so that she doesn’t have to, despite the criticism.
At just 16-years-old she is already ready to stand up and make a change for women and girls in Cambodia.
I asked her what she want’s to see for the future of women in Cambodia.
‘I would really like to see more people speaking out on women’s rights in Cambodia and I would also like to see there being a word for feminism in Khmer,’ she said.
‘We need to focus on education and explain that feminism is about equality. We also need to tell people that making comments that are sexist is wrong. If nobody points these things out then you won’t notice. Everyone needs to support and encourage women. It is really important to empower young girls and to tell them that they don’t have to listen to what society is telling them.’
I asked her what she would say to other young women around the world who are facing similar forms of discrimination.
‘Speak out, you are not alone, there are so many people out there who want to support you. When you are facing discrimination you can either talk about it or just live with it, but we should always choose to talk about it. At least then we have a chance to change things.’
Finally she wanted to add.
‘It is other people who tell you your limits, you are more than just your body. Don’t let anyone dull your sparkle, your voice matters more than you think and you are stronger than you think.’