When Ven Sam Ol first came to Phnom Penh to study, he knew exactly where to go. Like thousands of other poor young men from the countryside, he became a pagoda boy.
Ven Sam Ol took refuge at Wat Neak Kavorn near the railway station, where a young Hun Sen once studied. More than 200 young men stay at Wat Neak Kavorn, living rent-free and eating meals prepared by the monks.
Raised in Kampot province, Ven Sam Ol has stayed at the pagoda for seven years. Now 28, he has graduated from school and become a physical education teacher, all thanks to the monks, he says.
But Ven Sam Ol’s sister is not as lucky. She and two other girls share a single room that they rent for $30. If they can’t come up with the rent, they will have to return to the provinces.
Ven Sam Ol is perfectly aware of the inequality. So he was excited when he heard that Prime Minister Hun Sen is backing construction of what would become the country’s first women’s dormitory. “It’s great that they are considering it,” he said. “They should have done it a long time ago.”
Buddhism as practiced in Cambodia forbids women other than elderly nuns from staying in pagodas. Moreover, monks are forbidden from touching females, lest they risk losing their spiritual purity.
Women deserve a better chance at higher education, Hun Sen said Wednesday. He ordered the ministries of Education and Women’s Affairs to consider constructing a college dormitory for women in Phnom Penh. He suggested building a dorm that would accommodate 400 to 500 girls, and appealed to Japan to help fund it.
The idea also impressed Sorin Soneang, a first-year geography student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Sorin Soneang left Kompong Cham province to move in with her uncle in the city, to whom she pays $15 a month for rent and food.
While she enjoys staying with her family, Sorin Soneang says she finds helping out with household duties to be a distraction. “If there was a dorm, then we could stay there and have more time to study,” she said.
Girls who do not have family in Phnom Penh often must abandon their studies, she and her friends said as they relaxed on the university campus Thursday. Or they must share a cheap room for $25 or $30 a month, often in noisy slum areas that distract from their studies.
Boys do not have their own dormitories currently, but Hun Sen suggested that would not be a problem. “I think the boys would not be jealous of the girls. The boys can use city pagodas as their dorms.”
The gender gap in education is huge in Cambodia. Cambodian literacy levels for women are the lowest in the Mekong River region, and disparities between the rates of literacy among men and women are the highest, according to UN statistics.
Many girls are effectively excluded from higher education due to traditions dictating that parents keep their daughters close to home. And there is a dearth of higher education facilities in the provinces.
Hun Sen said the government is trying to construct more secondary schools out in the provinces. Year by year, girls are doing better at school, he said. He urged parents to be more understanding about their daughters’ need for a higher education.