While the core doctrine of Buddhism maintains that everyone has equal rights to obtain enlightenment and awakening, historically, there has been significant gender inequality when it comes to the roles that Cambodian girls and women can play within a pagoda. Boys and men are able to hold all positions in pagodas, such as being ordained as monks, or appointed as pagoda managers, while girls and women are only allowed to play roles subordinate to monks such as servers or cooks.
Historically, most of Cambodia’s pagodas provide young men who are monks with housing to continue their studies, while women are not able to access monkhood or even have access to live in pagodas in exchange for work or as a way to continue their higher education. This inequality is partly due to old normative beliefs — including beliefs promulgated by the Chbab Srey — as well as long-held pagoda rules.
Notably, however, studies have shown that people don’t see Buddhism in Cambodia as being at odds with a push for gender equality — and that is true even within pagodas, where monks and nuns have shown a surprising openness to progressive ideas.
The Cambodian government has set a goal for 2050 to ensure equal rights for women in all sectors, at all levels, in every institution under the blueprint of Neary Rattanak V, the five-year strategic plan for strengthening gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment. As part of this, Cambodia must have a conversation about the role of pagodas to promote and support women, and the current gendered gaps in these spaces.
Women in Buddhism
Buddhism has been a deeply influential force within Cambodian society since the 13th century, and in the present-day, the wat remains central to maintaining the ideas, norms, traditions, culture, management structure, social function and education set by the religion. Much of the infrastructure of these pagoda spaces revolve around monkhood — and therefore are in service of men and boys.
But a 2020 study by feminist group Klahaan found a high degree of openness within pagodas about gender equality — even on the question of female monks.
“The data did not reflect an ideological pushback from either laypeople or Buddhist monks to the idea of women serving as monks,” Klahaan says. “The explanation for women not being able to be ordained centred around technicalities.”
One such technicality was the lack of women monks to ordain the next generation, according to Klahaan.
“The respondents in this study did not refer to any ideas of women being inherently spiritually unsuitable for ordination in Buddhism,” the study says.
The openness extended to the roles of male and female nuns — ta-chi and yeay-chi — who currently take on stereotypical gendered tasks, such as the women doing most of the cleaning and cooking.
“Monks reported that such roles are not fixed, and that barriers preventing yeay-chi from taking on more substantive tasks are cultural rather than religious,” the report says. “This may provide an entry point to encourage yeay-chi to take on more substantive roles within the pagoda, and for ta-chi to share in cleaning and cooking tasks.”
Two-thirds of survey respondents said they believed Buddhism itself promotes gender equality — that when it comes to religion, they should be equal.
This gives Cambodia’s pagodas untapped potential to make a difference in promoting gender equality. One area in particular — pagoda housing for youth — is currently a major source of inequality, but has already seen small signs of being a potential agent for change.
Unequal Access to Pagoda Resources
Not having access to some of these aspects of pagoda life — for example, the safe, free housing that boys and young men in the monkhood have access to while completing their religious and secular education — has serious consequences for Cambodian girls and women.
Lack of dormitory support has long been a struggle for young Cambodian women, especially women from remote or rural areas who are trying to pursue their higher education in Phnom Penh. Speaking on this issue with the Cambodia Daily in 2007, for example, young women brought up fears around personal security, as well as concerns about being able to afford housing.
“We all here have the same problem, which is safety,” said Lam Bopha, 24, from Ratanakiri province. “The second [problem] is economic. In the provinces the living standard is still low. Money is a problem” when it comes to living in the capital, she told the Cambodia Daily.
Too often this means that young women are excluded altogether from higher education.
As recently as 2019, Royal University of Phnom Penh was still lacking adequate space for women students. Pen Sophany, the manager of female dormitories at the University, told Newsroom Cambodia that the university had three buildings for Cambodian female students. These three buildings can house 480 students, and around 300 students apply every year for only 120 spaces to replace the senior students who are graduating.
There are several groups that have tried to step in to fill this gap by providing housing on an application basis to young women with leadership potential who are looking to study in the capital. One notable group is the Harpswell Foundation, which operates two residential centers in Phnom Penh to house women pursuing higher education. But while groups like Harpswell are providing necessary assistance for Cambodia’s young women, they are not able to fully meet the level of demand.
In 2019, Moul Somneang, the manager at the Harpswell Foundation told Newsroom Cambodia that the foundation accepts 15 to 20 new students every year and that the foundation has two dormitories currently housing 70 students.
In 2018, in a speech to graduates of University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen acknowledged the unequal challenges women pursuing higher education were facing and likewise expressed awareness that the challenge of finding housing was impacting women’s access to University level learning.
“We can see that the number of female undergraduates has increased, but the gap is still too far,” the prime minister said. “The numbers are equal across grade levels, but at higher education there are fewer females enrolled.”
In this same speech, the prime minister also acknowledged the unfair advantage men are given due to their ability to access pagoda housing. “Male students could stay at a pagoda but not female students,” he said. “We should prepare dormitories for female students.”
But since this speech, there has not been proactive action on this issue.
Buddhist Institutions Should Unlock Access
A Buddha statue in Phnom Penh. (Chea Sameang)
Buddhist institutions can and should take a proactive role in helping to address this issue. The abbots of pagodas, especially those pagodas in cities like Phnom Penh where they can provide access to high schools or universities, could take a lesson from groups like the Harpswell Foundation and explore the ways in which they can offer equal support to young women who lack financial means or family resources to continue their education.
Buddhist monks and temples have been at the very forefront of other aspects of educational innovation. But what if pagoda’s could also serve as a safe place for young women to stay and pursue their higher education under the support of pagodas?
Some individual pagodas are already giving this role a try.
One pagoda in particular, Wat Preah Ind Samaki Dhama in Kandal province has done a good job supporting both young women and men in separate dorms.
“In the pagoda, we had two dorms separately for males and females, one with 18 rooms that served more than 120 young females who came from rural areas to stay and continue their secondary and high school studies in pagodas,” Mai Peareak, a personal assistant to the abbot, told me.
The abbot of this pagoda also said in an interview with Fresh News that the pagoda would plan to build two more dorms for those students, especially young women, who are interested in continuing their university education and have no place to stay. He also added that the university will give them a full scholarship for the whole four years, and those who will stay in the dorm will only contribute a small budget of $10 for electricity and water payment to the pagoda. More pagodas should strive to follow this model.
The Cambodian government should also consider taking a collaborative approach with Buddhist institutions by supporting urban pagodas which fill the demand for this type of housing for young women, as these pagodas have long-provided for young men.
Moving Cambodia’s gender equity movement forward will require diverse input, energy, and enthusiasm from all stakeholders, including religious actors who have the potential to play a particularly influential role in Cambodian society. To ensure the prosperity and well-being of the country, it is vital to end gender gaps and social stereotypes that contribute to the marginalization of women. Buddhist pagodas have the potential to be agents of progress and change on this front.
This article is produced with the financial assistance of Embassy of Sweden Section Office in Phnom Penh, European Union in Cambodia through Transparency International Cambodia. The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Union, Sweden Embassy, TI Cambodia, or Future Forum.