In 2007, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs requested that the government pull the “Chbab Srey”, or “Rules for Girls,” from the school curriculum. The request resulted in the elimination of some of the rules, but a shorter version of them is still being taught to Khmer literature students in grades 7 to 9. These include rules such as “Happiness in the family comes from a woman,” “A woman’s poor character results in others looking down upon her husband,” and “Don’t go for a walk to somebody’s house.” With the difficulties that girls already face in obtaining an education, rules that dictate a demure and subordinate place for girls can add an extra layer of complexity to harnessing the power of education.
The Chbab Srey is still a powerful force in schools in Cambodia. An evaluation of gender equity in secondary schools in Siem Reap that our team conducted last year found that between 93 and 97 percent of teachers and 76 and 79 percent of students agreed with the following statements: “The Chbab Srey must be taught to all students,” “The Chbab Srey represents Khmer culture,” and “Good women are those who follow and respect the Chbab Srey.” Teachers expressed their preference for the full version of the “rules” because of the content, but said the shorter one is also valuable. While teachers do not teach the entire text in the classroom, students are referred to books of the complete Chbab Srey that are available in school libraries. Teachers commented that students are taught to follow and memorize the rules—not to critique them.
Although teachers claimed that the Chbab Srey do not impact perception of gender equity, in interviews their understanding of gender roles reflected the teachings of the Chbab Srey: “If girls are soft and slow, they are nice. They should learn everything in the house and be friendly.” Teachers also talked more about “males being perceived as leaders and often chosen for leading class.” The report also noted, “Male teachers participated more and displayed more traditional views…female teachers’ body language suggested that they hesitated to answer and did not express many opinions in front of elderly male teachers.”
Embedded gender inequities also surfaced in interviews with students, as they used descriptions of girls that mirrored the guidelines of the Chbab Srey. Participants in the evaluation described female students as “sweet” and “shy,” and identified gender-specific jobs, such as being a driver or an engineer, that were inappropriate for “weak” and “vulnerable” girls. Yet education in Cambodia requires girls to be brave and strong when facing inequities in education and to strongly voice their needs, desires and ambitions. To fully achieve the lives that they deserve, girls must learn, unequivocally, that they are powerful and capable, and that their voice matters.
Girls must also learn that they are capable of more than the boundaries set by traditional gender roles. These roles are reinforced by some of the rules taught in the Chbab Srey and could be adding excessive expectations of domestic responsibilities to the long list of barriers to education for girls. A discussion of the participation of girls in domestic responsibilities in the above study exposed deeply seated cultural beliefs regarding the roles of women, even as students and teachers stated the importance of gender equity in education. Students frequently identified domestic duties as a difficulty that girls face in pursuing their studies. Traditional domestic expectations of girls being “busy at home” and overloaded with “lots of housework” indicate that traditional gender roles, such as the assumption by women of most or all domestic responsibilities, can impede girls’ quality of education. Reinforcing traditional identities and gender roles, while encouraging girls’ empowerment in education, impacts more than just girls. This incongruity causes discord in families and relationships as girls and boys struggle to understand more equitable roles in society and in the family.
Rules of the Chbab Srey that encourage girls to maintain the balance of power in the home and to tolerate the damaging behavior of dominating males in the family could be disastrous when girls and boys are presented with conflicting ideas of empowerment and equality. In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Family Violence based on the 2005 Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey, Eng et al. found that a husband’s control was linked to physical and emotional violence and that increased spousal discussion (as measured by four items: wife talks about events at work, at home, in the community, and about money) exacerbated husband control and emotional violence. As girls are encouraged to play an active role in their education, to become more vocal about their own dreams and pursuits, and seek more dominant roles in society, this could lead to pushback from males who feel that their position of control within the home and community is threatened.
When boys presume that males are the source of power and authority in society, they can feel threatened by girls who seek empowerment. These incongruities in relationships can lead to conflict and even violence by reinforcing male dominance through curriculum. Studies have suggested that, in general, structures that support male dominance can contribute to domestic violence. In particular, in marriages in which men dominate decision-making, domestic violence against wives is eight times more likely to occur than in egalitarian marriages. Reinforcing notions of male dominance, like those encouraged in some rules of the Chbab Srey, could increase the likelihood of domestic violence and be detrimental to girls and their fight for equality.
Access to education should improve societies and make families and communities safer for girls and women. If there is a possibility that gender inequities are reinforced through Chbab Srey, and that some of these rules could undermine girls’ safety, then it is crucial to re-examine its place in education. Wholesale consumption of the rules in the classroom undermines the critical lens through which students should learn to view their world and overlooks an opportunity for discussion of gender equity in the classroom. It is the role of education and schools to send a clear message to all genders that girls deserve to be seen and heard, and that violence against girls and women will not be tolerated. To support and encourage gendered beliefs, and to put girls and women at risk, counters the progress that Cambodia seeks in girls’ education.
Society changes slowly, but there is an opportunity for schools to create an environment that is free from inequity and a refuge from influences that undermine girls and women. Encouraging empowerment through education becomes difficult when girls, their families, communities and even educators, learn that power and voice are inappropriate for females. Teaching the Chbab Srey threatens the burgeoning system of gender equity in Cambodian schools, adds unnecessary complexities to the challenges that girls face, and could even endanger the well-being of girls and families.
If it must be retained in the current form, teachers should be trained in how to teach these rules critically. It is time to consider how gender inequities in education are cloaked in the rules of the Chbab Srey, and rethink their place in curriculum.
Kelly Grace is a graduate student in Comparative and International Education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Sothy Eng is Professor of Practice in Comparative and International Education program at Lehigh University’s College of Education.