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First Lady’s Visit a Reminder of the Woes of Cambodian Women

First lady Michelle Obama, center, with PBS Sesame Street's characters Elmo, left, and Rosita, right, as they help promote fresh fruit and vegetable consumption to kids in an event in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, file photo.

This month, First Lady Michelle Obama is set to visit Cambodia, one of the first 11 countries to be included in the US’s Let Girls Learn initiative. To many Cambodians, her visit marks a major step for women’s activism and toward equal rights to education, as well as a chance for stronger ties between the two countries.

The last visit by an American first lady came in 1967, when Jackie Kennedy visited the famed temples of Angkor Wat. Obama will visit Siem Reap, the gateway city to the temples, where she will meet with local community leaders to discuss ways to improve the lives of girls who live in rural poverty.

Cambodia has a high dropout rate—nearly 9 percent for primary school and 20 percent for high school. Girls are more likely than boys to drop out, to help the family with household chores and other domestic work. Meanwhile, only 12 percent of the national budget goes toward education, miring many families in continued poverty, poor education and few opportunities to rise.

“Michelle Obama’s first visit to Cambodia highlights a huge problem in Cambodia,” said Mu Sochua, a lawmaker for the Cambodia National Rescue Party and a former minister of Women’s Affairs, “which is a lack of educational opportunities for all women and girls in Cambodia.”

The Let Girls Learn initiative works on already existing efforts of USAID, as well as bolstered efforts by the Peace Corps, in an effort to help keep more girls in school worldwide. “Through the efforts of the first lady—working with the Peace Corps—this new initiative will support community-generated and community-led girls’ education projects worldwide,” the White House said in a statement. The program will empower local leaders through training and by seeking local solutions, such as technology training at libraries. It will also establish a girls’ education fund and expand Peace Corps volunteers working on girls’ education.

Thida Khus, executive director for Silaka, a Cambodian development organization, said the first lady’s visit could help spur more education reform and help keep more girls in school. “That encourages all stakeholders to continue their work paving the way for girls to go to school,” she said.

But Obama’s visit will not just highlight the need in Cambodia for better education for girls. For activists and students alike, the visit provides an opportunity to appeal to a powerful woman leader on related issues.

Women from a coalition of civic groups are planning to submit a petition to Obama that calls for the release of 12 women activists currently in prison, on charges supporters say have been leveled at them to discourage protest and dissent.

“Her visit could send a message to the government of Cambodia to release our women activists, who remain in detention,” said Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia. Those detentions, over protests for land and housing rights, are a part of a larger problem, where Cambodian women “lack the power in decision-making,” she said.

Yorm Bopha, a housing activist who served a prolonged jail sentence for protesting against the government, said she was encouraged by the first lady’s visit. “I, along with other women activists and victims of land grabbing, would like to appeal to Michelle Obama to help the women currently detained because of their activism to defend their rights to land,” Yorm Bopha said.

While not a diplomatic trip, Obama’s visit could also have improve diplomatic relations, Leav Kimlay, president of the US Ambassador’s Youth Council, said. “It is an opportunity for Cambodia to not only establish itself on the international stage, but also to enhance its diplomatic relations with the US,” he said, adding that he was pleased with the initiative to promote girls’ education.

And for young women like Meas Chansatya, a university student, the visit should also spur more political leadership among women. “I would like to appeal to her to promote women in political participation and leadership in Cambodia,” she said. “Women have limited opportunities for leadership roles, and we lack women leaders.”