Push to Transform Bright Female Students Into Future Gov’t Leaders

As a child growing up in a poor family in Banteay Meanchey, Yang Leaphea struggled to imagine a world outside her province. She turned to her desperately under-resourced local library, but found few books there to expand her horizons.

All that changed when the intelligent daughter of noodle vendors was accepted by the Harpswell Foundation to take up a place at their dormitory for promising young women studying in Phnom Penh.

With accommodation—one of the greatest obstacles to female students from the provinces attending university—taken care of, Ms. Leaphea was able to not only graduate from the Royal University of Law and Economics and study abroad in the U.S., but also to gain key insights from women at the peak of their careers.

“If I had not been selected by Harpswell I would…not get access to the leaders and people who came to teach, and there are a lot of smart girls from different provinces so we can network,” she said.

Now a legal adviser at a private law firm and a women’s rights activist, the 23 year old is giving back to a new cohort of Harpswell students, along with a select group of other young women, by teaching at the inaugural Summer Institute to Promote Women’s Empowerment and Women in Public Service.

The two-week program—a joint effort by Harpswell, Pannasastra University and the Women in Public Service Project—will see 63 undergraduates take part in workshops on topics including critical thinking, ethics, law and business.

“I want to encourage them to study hard and also to help the society,” Ms. Leaphea said.

Alan Lightman, a U.S. physicist and writer who founded the Harpswell Foundation in 2005, said at the institute’s launch on Sunday that he felt it was timely as Cambodia is “undergoing a lot of changes right now.”

“I think young people are getting excited about becoming potentially the leaders of the country and we feel that women should be part of that leadership,” he said.

Globally, women comprise a minority of public service officials, with on average only 22 percent of parliamentary seats occupied by women, according to U.N. Women Cambodia country director Wenny Kusuma.

Ms. Kusuma, who said 20 percent of Cambodian parliamentarians were female, urged the institute’s participants to one day run for public office.

“Sixty-three is not a lot of women but when you apply a multiplier over time…we expect that over the years you will give back to Cambodian women, to all of Cambodia, what you have received,” she said in a speech.

Ing Kantha Phavi, the Women’s Affairs Minister, described politics as “very male dominated” and said she had personally run into difficulties promoting gender equality.

“We need women to shape the policies for the nation…in order to be more gender responsive and more inclusive in our society,” she told the audience.

“We cannot succeed if half the population is held back.”

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