The Bamboo Ceiling

There is a woman I know in the Cambodian countryside named “S.” She lives with her mother, husband, kids, 8 pigs, 200 chickens, and 5 oxen. She has a big garden with organic vegetables that she sells to neighbors. Her kids go to school on their own bicycles. It’s a pretty nice life, almost middle class.

Two years ago, she had 1 pig and almost made ends meet from her garden and the money her husband sent back from Thailand, where he’d lived as a migrant worker for 10 years. So what changed? She started working with the women’s empowerment non-profit, Rachna Satrei, where I’ve been volunteering for four months. They helped her get the training she needed to help herself.

There is a woman I know NYC who is extraordinarily competent. She’s articulate, brilliant. She’s really always has the best ideas at meetings, accomplishes miracles with her team, and more. But I’ve watched her doubt herself, and I’ve seen her defer to male colleagues who never seem troubled about expressing opinions.

In fact, I’ve known so many brilliant, accomplished women in my western, wealthy life who don’t embrace their power. It’s troubling how often I’ve found myself reminding amazing women that they can do (and change) everything. That they need to own it. Get it done.

In my own life, I’ve had amazing role models, yet it took way too long to appreciate my own agency and power. I’m not cured of self-doubt — not by a long shot. But now I do finally have enough confidence to give it everything I’ve got. Most of the time.

Seeing how hard this is for me and other women, even with every advantage and opportunity, shows how hard it is to kill gender discrimination. One of the biggest challenges is to help women see the value in themselves. I found myself thinking a lot about how to fix this, and I wanted to do more.

Six months ago, I quit my job, I left my husband (temporarily!) and friends, and I moved to Cambodia to work for a non profit. The women’s empowerment group I’m working for helps provide the skills and confidence women need so they can step it up.

At its core, women’s empowerment is both really simple and really hard: it’s about ending poverty. Women make up half the population. Simple math: when one half your group isn’t maxed out, you’re going to fall behind. Every woman should grow up with the expectation that she will go to school, and have enough to eat, and have adequate health care. Women must be as well-educated, as healthy, and as valued as men.

We’ve got issues at home, of course. But if we’re going to solve the world’s problems, we need everyone in the world to contribute.

This is what I’ve learned in Cambodia. The women here are just like all the women you know. They’re smart and thoughtful. They love their families. They have big ideas. They deserve basic human rights: to work for their dreams, make decisions, challenge their husbands or fathers when necessary, and to expect fairness always. There’s a long way to go.

I’m leaving Cambodia soon. Eventually I’ll go back to my comfortable life. But I’ve taken on one last project. Rachna Satrei is building a school to help women become seamstresses, and more. It’s exactly the kind of work I came here to do: give women the tools they need to change their own lives.

They need money. I’ll make a significant contribution to help these women — our sisters. I hope you’ll consider joining me, and give what you can, too. Here’s how.

This is Cambodia.

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