Youth and women’s rights advocate, change-maker, mentor, inspiration – at only 25 years old, Phearong Sdeung is having an impact and living a life that she says is “beyond [her] dreams”. And at the centre of her story is an unwavering pursuit of education in the face of financial and gender barriers that all too often pose insurmountable for young women in her country.
Phearong Sdeung grew up the youngest of five children in a remote area of Cambodia’s Kampong Cham province. School was several kilometres away and her parents were so poor that going to school soon meant making a difficult daily choice: the intangible benefits of education or doing something to put food on her family’s table.
The pressure to leave school intensified with each passing year as they do for many in a country where at least 1 in 5 girls drop out in Grade 9, according to the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.
Phearong Sdeung persevered, willing to do whatever it took to complete her education, even if it meant putting herself in dangerous situations. She recalls selling SIM cards in remote areas to help pay for her secondary studies, a job that she kept from her parents so as to not hurt their feelings or cause them worry about her safety.
While balancing school and her part-time work, the young woman somehow also found time to become civically engaged for the first time. She volunteered as a youth representative for the Khmer Youth Association, and it was there that she first learned valuable lessons about public engagement and how female voices were too often missing in decision-making.
She now had a desire to fill that void and became driven to complete higher education to advance that goal. Poverty was not the only barrier she would have to overcome to achieve that goal. Gender biases were especially prevalent in rural areas like her village.
“Society says that even if the woman studies as much as she wants, she’ll end up being a housewife anyway,” she said. “Most female students lose motivation, drop out before university, and have no encouragement or role models.”
Phearong Sdeung was unsuccessful in applying for scholarships, leading her parents to offer to sell their farm to pay for the fees. The organization Women Education (Wedu) intervened in time to prevent that from happening, offering US$200 to help her in her first half year, as part of their efforts to promote Asian women’s leadership potential.
Living far away from campus in what she describes as “maybe the cheapest [room] in the city”, Phearong Sdeung dealt with the challenges of moving from a rural area to the big city and the lack of immediate support.
“I lived in a small room with lots of insects,” she recalls. “One day, I was so broke, but I didn’t call my family because my parents were sick at the time. I just bought a bottle of water to drink because I didn’t have enough money for food.”
Phearong Sdeung became the first person in her family to complete higher education when she received a bachelor’s degree in international relations at the Royal University of Law and Economics. She is now pursuing her master’s degree in Human Rights Law at Pannasastra University of Cambodia, with her research focused on discrimination against women, supported by the Raul Wallenberg Institute Scholarship.
She was also named one of Wedu’s “Rising Stars”, a group of female university students and young professionals who are committed to changing the status quo and driven to lead the change in their society. Phearong Sdeung credits Wedu’s support with helping open a door to learning for her.
“I would say the only thing that can help people change their life is education,” she says. “However, a scholarship is important for me as I was born into poverty, and would not have a chance to go to school if I did not receive one.”
Phearong Sdeung founded Joint Of Youth (JOY), which helps hundreds of young people from rural areas stay in school and participate in their communities, while also raising awareness on critical gender issues. Phearong Sdeung and her organization are now part of ministerial discussions on women’s issues, and she has been involved with UN Women and UNICEF Phnom Penh, including being named a “Champion for Ending Violence Against Women”.
Her can-do spirit led to UN Women and UNICEF Phnom Penh inviting her to present on her organization’s activities, earning JOY a key place in a UN-supported 16-day campaign on Ending Violence Against Women. Phearong Sdeung was named a “Champion for Ending Violence Against Women” as part of the campaign.
Today, JOY is a close collaborator with UNICEF and UN Women in Cambodia and is active in projects with national ministries, such as with the Ministry of Woman Affairs. Phearong Sdeung continues to receive media attention for her youth activities personal achievements and continues to engage in ministerial discussions on women’s leadership potential.
Her platforms have expanded greatly, but she hasn’t forgotten her struggles, and the tough lessons she has had to learn along the way.
Once a student struggling to feed herself and study, she is now a mentor to 10 young Cambodians, who seek to follow in her footsteps.
She’s also appreciated at home, where she says biases may be shifting. “I believe my nieces are looking at me as role model now, and rural communities are encouraging their children to go to school instead of getting married at an early age,” she says.
She remains an inspiration for young people – male and female alike – who also aspire to accelerate momentum towards gender equality and the empowerment of every girl and woman to complete education.
“I would like to help as many youths as possible with their personal development, and motivate them to keep going to school,” she says. “I cannot change Cambodia as a whole, but at least I can help change the prospects of young people in their personal development. I want to see Cambodia no longer as a least developing country, no corruption, and, most importantly, more women participation in the parliament.”
Written By Christian Dohrmann
Edited by Noel Boivin
SDG4’s transformative vision brought to life
Phearong Sdeung’s story speaks powerfully to what UNESCO and the global community are trying to achieve through realizing the SDG4-Education 2030 Agenda. Twelve years of education, with scholarship financing mechanisms and continuous parental and community support have literally transformed this young woman’s life, as well as those who she has and will continue to mentor and inspire.
Ensuring that all children complete 12 years of free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education (SDG 4.1) and increasing the number of scholarships available to developing countries (SDG 4.b) form only part of the SDG4-Education 2030 Agenda, which encompasses 10 targets that together offer a comprehensive, holistic and universal vision of education that transforms the lives of individuals and society at large.
As this story shows, fostering more inclusive quality education in a learner’s home country will be a key factor in achieving these targets. Phearong Sdeung initially dreamed of going abroad for her higher education because of financial and gender-based barriers in her country. Had she done so, the country would have lost her talents and an inspiration to young men and woman who seek to become just like her.
International Women’s Day 2018 is an opportunity to raise awareness around women in all settings, rural and urban, and to celebrate the activists who are working relentlessly to claim women’s rights and realize their full potential.
(Main photo: Laura Asherman, second photo: Christian Dohrmann)