Negotiating Tradition

Chamnorng Som

For young Cambodian activist Chamnorng Som, ‘crossing the line’ began at home. “As a Cambodian woman, everyday is a constant negotiation for me. Through what seemed like endless discussions, I was able to convince my mother to give me a chance to get a higher education and to work outside our province. It almost seemed impossible, but I was able to do it,” says Chamnorng, an active member of the JASS-inspired organization CYWEN (Cambodian Young Women’s Empowerment Network).  

Chamnorng was brought up in a “conservative” Khmer culture were women’s role is confined in the home. Women are expected to only be dutiful wives, do all the domestic work, and care for the children. Because of this culture, girls are not expected to have a higher education because they will eventually marry and be provided for by their husbands.

But Chamnorng is constantly challenging these cultural norms and traditions.

“I feel like I am always crossing the line in my family. One of the greatest challenges that I faced was when my mother objected to my plan to get married after she found out that my husband’s birthday was incompatible with mine. It took a long time to convince my mother and get her permission to get married,” says Chamnorng. Khmer culture adheres to the religious belief that couples’ birthdates have to be “compatible.” The compatibility sign is based on Chinese astrology. “But, I am rising above these kinds of challenges one day at a time,” she adds.

“I feel like I am always crossing the line in my family..." Chamnorng Som

Even with these barriers, Chamnorng decided to go university and after completing her degree, she worked as a youth trainer at the Youth Resource Development Program (YRDP) were she led awareness-raising campaigns, dialogues and activities on how to address domestic violence against women. Through this youth group, Chamnorng  saw firsthand how women who experience domestic violence cope and recover.

“The significant moment that led me to become an activist came when I saw how women get hurt from domestic violence. I developed a strong passion for the issue of violence against women,” says Chamnorng.

Chamnorng also worked as a writer and researcher, focusing on violence against women studies and Khmer courts’ response to this issue. These experiences affirmed her interest in working with women,especially marginalized women, like those who experience of violence. While working at SILAKA, Chamnorng led capacity building initiatives through training, coaching, and community practice work at sub-national levels. Currently, Chamnorng works as a freelance researcher on gender and health.

“It is disheartening to see Cambodian women’s situation. Left and right, women face land and housing evictions, sex trafficking, rape, low wages, violence, abuse and harassment. I want to change this current situation,” says Chamnorng.

As a member of CYWEN, Chamnorng found a sense of belonging, “I was able to find and join a young women’s group with the same aspirations as I do.” CYWEN which was formed in 2010 following a national-level leadership training and strategy process carried out by JASS in 2009 is devoted to strengthening young women’s leadership. CYWEN draws on JASS’ feminist movement-building work to amplify young activists’ voices and visibility to speak out and bring their concerns to the forefront.

Actively involved in JASS processes in Cambodia through CYWEN, Chamnorng takes advantage of her involvement in JASS’ movement building processes to connect with other activists, gain more confidence, and speak out against injustices. “In CYWEN, I feel that I am in a safe space to discuss and be confident to contribute to and be part of social change,” she concludes.