Empowering a New Generation of Leaders in the Developing World

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Background and History

Cambodia, a country in Southeast Asia bordered by Vietnam to the east, Thailand to the west, and Laos to the north, is a largely Buddhist nation of 14 million people. The language is Khmer. The capital city is Phnom Penh, with a population of about 1.5 million.

The great cultural treasure of Cambodia is the fabulous temple complex of Angkor Wat, the largest in the world, built from roughly 800 to 1300 A.D. Much of the pride and identity of Cambodia today traces back to this Ankor, or Khmer, Civilization. In the 1860s, Cambodia was colonized by the French, then became an independent nation in 1953. There followed a monarchy under Prince Sihanouk. Sihanouk was overthrown by the US supported dictator Lon Nol, who ruled from 1970 to 1975. During the Lon Nol regime, Cambodia suffered from a terrible civil war plus war with Vietnam. In addition, as the finale to the Vietnam War, the US dropped 500,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia, trying to kill the Viet Cong who had taken refuge there. In 1975, the radical communist organization called the Khmer Rouge took power and began a violent restructuring of society.

During the period 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge killed 2 million people, a quarter of the population at the time, INCLUDING VIRTUALLY ALL OF THE EDUCATED POPULATION. That horrific fact distinguishes Cambodia from almost all modern countries. The Khmer Rouge also destroyed the medical, legal, and economic infrastructure of the country. Cambodia has not recovered from that destruction.

After the Khmer Rouge lost power in 1979, Vietnam occupied Cambodia. Guerilla forces opposed the Vietnamese. In 1991, under UN guidance, various fighting factions in Cambodia signed the Paris Peace Accord. In 1997, Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) took over the leadership of the country. Since that time, Cambodia has enjoyed stability, although the country still faces the challenges of poverty, lack of education, sex trafficking, lack of health care, problems of land ownership, and gender inequality.

Vanna Peou signs a Memorandum of Understanding between the Harpswell Foundation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cambodia, June 2008

Today, Cambodia remains the poorest country in Southeast Asia, with an annual income of $500/person. The average life expectancy in Cambodia is 59 years old, compared to 71 in Vietnam and 72 in Thailand. For every one million people, there are only 160 physicians in Cambodia, as compared to 2000 in Thailand and 5000 in the U.S. Of the 9 justices on the Supreme Court, only one has a law degree. Only about 6% of the population has graduated high-school, and only about 2% has graduated from college. Of this 2%, only about 25% are women, and only about 10% of those are women from the provinces.

The best hope for Cambodia seems to be education and leadership training. Studies by the World Bank and other international organizations have shown that the most effective way to reduce poverty in third world countries is the education of women [e.g. "Advancing Gender Equality: World Bank Action Since Beijing" (World Bank, 2000); "What Helps in Girls' Education: Evidence and Policies for the Developing World" (Council on Foreign Relations, 2005)]. In many third world countries, including Cambodia, women are discriminated against regarding educational, social, and professional opportunities. Thus, ironically, the population that can most advance the country is given the least opportunity to do so. For that reason, we have focused most of the efforts of the Harpswell Foundation towards the education and leadership training of women, through our dormitory and leadership center for college women in Phnom Penh.

Frederick Lipp, founder of the Cambodian Arts and Scholarship Foundation, talking to children at Tramung Chrum village, accompanied (on his right) by Dary Chap, local director of CASF.

Our Introduction to Cambodia

In 2001, Frederick Lipp, a retired Unitarian minister and friend of Alan Lightman's, visited the UN office for Human Rights in Phnom Penh and was told that what Cambodia needed was improved education for girls and women. Lipp began helping young Cambodian girls stay in grade school. In December 2003, Alan and his daughter Elyse accompanied Lipp to Cambodia. They spent two weeks travelling to the various villages where Lipp was supporting children and their families. When the Lightmans arrived at the remote village of Tramung Chrum, about 50 miles northwest of Phnom Penh, mothers holding their babies pleaded with them to help build the village a school. The villagers' hope and belief in the power of education, in the face of such poverty and destruction, impressed the Lightmans, and they committed themselves to building a school in Tramung Chrum. That was the beginning of the work of the Harpswell Foundation in Cambodia.

Alan and Veasna

In 2004, Alan met a thirty-year-old Cambodian woman named Veasna Chea, only the fourth woman in Cambodia to receive a law degree. Chea told Lightman an inspirational personal story: when she was in law school, in the mid 1990s, Chea and several other female law students had to live underneath the law school building, in the six-foot crawl space between the ground and the bottom of the building, because there was no housing for women attending universities in Cambodia. Male students could live in the Buddhist pagodas, but not females. Lightman was impressed and inspired by Chea's courage and commitment to receive a higher education, despite the obstacles facing her, and further inspired by her social activism, suggesting the potential power of women to rebuild Cambodia. In January 2005 Lightman and Chea conceived the idea of building a dormitory for female students attending universities in Phnom Penh. Lightman and Chea later elaborated this idea so that the facility would provide not only housing and food, but also leadership training, critical thinking skills, English and computer classes, and other elements of an academic program. The first dormitory and leadership center for women was completed in July 2006 and the second in December 2009.

© The Harpswell Foundation 2008
last revised 9/12/16