Born in 1986 in Arnhem, Netherlands, Menno de Block was raised in the provincial town of Sneek by loving parents. He ventured out into the world upon turning 18. Since then, he has lived in Canada, France, Ireland, and Turkey, as well as in a number of Dutch cities including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Groningen. In August 2014, De Block moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to start a new chapter of his life.
He has extensive experience in business strategy consulting and sales. Having been involved in several social startups, he is highly committed to the success of social enterprises, evidenced by his pro bono involvement in an online social business platform, educational activities, and coaching, as well as previous consultancy.
Shortly after De Block came to Cambodia, he became inspired by the stories of many of the young Cambodian women he met and worked with. Their stories of struggle, hope, and determination ultimately led him to decide to write a book about them, celebrating their lives and achievements.
De Block: I found that it is the women in Cambodia that are fighting for the future of education in the country. He stayed in a hostel and quickly became friends with the receptionist. She is from a very poor family, the oldest of three siblings and was lucky to get a scholarship to go to university. At the same time, she was working in this hostel six days of the week. It is fairly standard in Phnom Penh for students to work eight hours a day to be able to pay for their studies. One morning, I went down to reception to find her reading a textbook and said to me: “I just want to make sure that I understand this model correctly so I can use it in my work.” Education is a privilege here.
It really fascinates me. It seems that the women here are the ones that take care of the community and fight for progress. I meet a lot of these young women who are doing really amazing things and that inspire me. So after a year I decided to write a book about it and made 25 interviews with young women active in academia, politics, art etc.
What conditions allow these women to pursue their passions and work goals?
De Block: Usually the man is in charge, in patriarchal societies. Here, the man moves into the bride’s house as the women are supposed to take care of the parents and inherit the household duties. As a result, Cambodian society focuses more on women’s education.
It still depends on generations, however. Young women in universities do not want to move back to the countryside where their parents live. They want to continue their career and stay in the city. The parents expect their girls to come back home as a way of respecting their culture and traditions.
A misogynistic code of conduct for women was written in the 19th century and many Cambodian women still abide by it. Women are expected to be housewives only and to prioritize making their families happy. Gender divisions are still huge for many and financial independence remains a far-fetched dream for many women in Cambodia.
Why are some parents braver and allow their daughters to have an education against the whole family’s opinion?
De Block: I think that witnessing their daughters’ eagerness to learn from an early age helps consolidate education as a value for certain families. They are very proud of their daughters’ educational achievements and want to see them flourish in ways that might not have been possible for themselves.