Author Menno de Block: Stories of Courage in Cambodia

Truly a global citizen, author Menno de Block has lived in Canada, France, Ireland, Turkey and a number of Dutch cities after having been raised in the Netherlands. In August, 2014, he moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to begin a new chapter in his life. There, he encountered many brave young women in this culture where women have considerable authority. We caught up with him in Phnom Penh in 2017, shortly before he published his book about these brave women called Diving Deep, Going Far (2018).   

Margareta Barchan: What is happening with the women in Cambodia right now that captured your attention? 

Menno de Block: When I first arrived, I was staying in a hostel and quickly became friends with the receptionist. She was a young woman from a very poor family. She was lucky enough to get a scholarship to go to university for a year, which she was doing. But she also had to work 8 hours a day to pay for the rest of her education and other expenses. Her dedication was impressive. One morning, I came down and saw her studying at the reception desk even though her exams had ended. When I asked why she was still studying, she said that she wanted to see how the information would be useful for her job.  The women here are the ones who take care of the community and fight for progress. I began to meet a lot of women like this, and that is why I decided to write a book about them.  

Barchan: What conditions allow these women to pursue their passions and work goals?

de Block: Traditionally, in Cambodia, the man moves into the bride’s house because the women are supposed to take care of their aging parents and assume the household duties. As a result, Cambodian society puts a focus on women’s education. What is happening now is that young women attending university do not want to move back to the countryside to live with their parents, which is considered tradition and a sign of respect. Rather, they want to live in the city and have careers.  A misogynistic code of conduct for women was written in the 19th century and many Cambodian women still abide by it. Gender divisions are still huge for many and financial independence remains a far-fetched dream for many women in Cambodia. 

Barchan: Despite intense pressure to keep their daughters at home, as tradition dictates, some parents allow their daughters to pursue education. How are they brave enough to do that?

de Block: I think that some families have seen their daughters’from an early age be eager to learn. Education becomes valued by the family. They are very proud of their daughters’ academic achievements and want to see them flourish in ways that might not have been possible for themselves.

You can read more stories about these brave young women in Diving Deep, Going Far, de Block’s compilation of 22 interviews inspiring women across Cambodia. The book will officially launch on June 21st in Phnom Penh.