PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – For many girls growing up in Cambodia, the expectation is that they will leave school early, marry and become homemakers, especially in the provinces, where up to 80 percent of the country’s population live. But many Cambodians say perceptions are changing, along with the desires of young women themselves.
In the capital Phnom Penh, three young women have rejected traditional roles and instead run Motogirltour, offering motorcycle tours of the city and the provinces.
After founding the company in 2015, Renou Chea, now 26, brought in her sister Raksmey Chea, 23, cousin Sreynich “Manich” Horm, 22, and two other cousins. While Renou runs the business full-time, the rest work part-time as they hold down other jobs or are pursuing university degrees. The women, who all speak English, say the bulk of their clientele consists of female travelers, who feel more comfortable using an all-female service. When they do get a male customer, the women work in pairs to keep each other safe.
Although the young company has been doing well, Renou and her moto girls still face judgment. There’s a popular saying in Cambodia: “A girl is like white pepper, while boys are like diamonds.” The logic goes that if diamonds get dirty, the mud can be washed off, but if white pepper gets dirty, it can never be clean again. In this context, women escorting foreigners around on motorcycles can, at times, arouse suspicion.
Women & Girls spoke with Renou, Raksmey and Sreynich about challenging gender norms and their advice to parents in Cambodia.
Women & Girls: What was the motivation to start your business?
Renou Chea: I was working in business finance but then my dad, who has a convenience store at the market and a delivery service, got sick and could not work. So I needed to help my mom and my family.
I ran the store and did all the deliveries [by motorcycle] for about two years. When my dad got better, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be selling at the market forever, I want to work for myself.’ My aunt, who lives on the Thai border, told me about some girls there driving moto taxis to pay for their studies. I thought this was a great idea and decided to mix it with tourism.
Women & Girls: What’s unique about Motogirltour?
Raksmey Chea: We use motorbikes whereas other companies mostly use buses, cars or tuk-tuks. And we are female drivers. Especially for women who are traveling alone, they might feel scared to go out with a male tour operator, whereas they feel safe and relaxed with us.
Women & Girls: What’s the perception of women and girls in Cambodia?
Sreynich Horm: Our country is very conservative and still developing. After school, girls are expected to come back home and help with housework. It’s different for boys: they can go and play football and do what they want without any pressure.
Raksmey: In the provinces especially, if a family are poor and they have two children, a boy and a girl, the boy will be allowed to go to school and the girl will have to stay at home. And then because the girl has low education, the parents will push their daughters to get married. They think this will protect them from the problems in society.
Sreynich: There is also a perception that boys who get their education will have a higher salary than a girl who has the same opportunity. But we girls want to help improve the family situation as well. That’s why we started this business.
Women & Girls: What has been the reaction from local people to your business?
Raksmey: When we pick up customers, at a hotel for example, sometimes the tuk-tuk drivers nearby say we are “not good girls,” which they mean to say, we are prostitutes.
When I first took customers to the provinces, the people there wanted to know what we were doing. Why were we taking foreigners to their homes? And we would tell them who we are and about our business and they would tell us about their daughters, about keeping them at home and not wanting them to have higher education. We tell them: “Your girls should go to school.”
Women & Girls: Is it important for young women to be financially independent?
Raksmey: I think women should be independent because if a woman depends only on a guy, she has no decision-making power in the house. And if they are poor and only the man can earn the money and their situation doesn’t improve, it can be a cause of violence in the family.
Sreynich: If you are financially independent, then you can achieve your dreams. And if you have problems, you have your own money to help yourself. When I go to the provinces, I meet many women who are scared because they don’t have money, they don’t have power to make any decisions for their families. I feel this is not developed at all.
Women & Girls: Do your parents encourage you to be independent?
Renou: Our parents are very traditional, but they did put us through university. They said they didn’t have anything to give us. They are not rich, but they thought of our education as an investment in our future.
Sreynich: That’s why we are running this business, we are trying to get out of this situation. We want to show people what we can do by ourselves.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.