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Boys Missed During Michelle Obama's Let Girls Learn Visit to Cambodia

04/02/2015 10:31 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

On Saturday, March 21, Michelle Obama visited Hun Sen Prasat Bakong High School in Siem Reap province to promote the education initiative "Let Girls Learn." She met with ten girls from the senior class to discuss the obstacles they face in acquiring a quality education and to encourage them to pursue their education despite the challenges and hardships they must overcome to make their dreams a reality. The equal education of girls is a noble and essential pursuit in helping girls and women around the world. Yet, there was a piece of the puzzle that was distinctly missing from the conversation at Bakong High School, namely, the role of boys in supporting girls in their fight for equality.

Cambodia is one of 11 countries that are part of the "Let Girls Learn" initiative. Let Girls Learn is a government initiative that builds on USAID's program under the same name. USAID works with the White House, the Peace Corp and the Department of State to increase access to quality education, reduce barriers such as school fees and the cost of materials to attend school and to empower girls by increasing girls' rights, leadership opportunities and helping them to recognize the value they have as essential contributors to their local communities and beyond. Additionally the incentive seeks to positively impact girls' lives by encouraging equality, communication and community engagement.

Gender equity in education is not a fight that girls face autonomously, and the conversations about gender equity in education need not be exclusively for girls. An empirical study based on the 2005 Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey showed that married women's egalitarian behavior, as measured by frequency of spousal discussion on issues related to finance, events at work, at home and in the community, increased the likelihood of emotional violence and intensified husbands' marital control (Eng et al. 2010). The study suggested that an intervention that targets just women without men's participation could exacerbate the situation because men holding patriarchal beliefs would interpret women's egalitarian behavior as a violation to Cambodian norms for quiet, submissive wives.

A recent study, conducted by a group of Lehigh University graduate students, at junior and senior high schools including Bakong (supported by the NGO Caring for Cambodia) showed that students who participated in Student/Youth Council Program, in which both boys and girls share the responsibility, exhibited a more equitable view toward gender equality in career compared to those who did not participate in the program (Phillips et al. 2014). For example, in a job that is commonly male-dominated, 36 percent of the student council members vs. 23 percent of non-student council members agreed that being an engineer is a job suitable for both men and women. Student council members also scored higher compared to non-council members on the equitable views toward a career as a lawyer (67 vs. 46 percent), doctor (58 vs. 53 percent), manager (57 vs. 40 percent), researcher (53 vs. 38 percent) and Information Technology (57 vs. 52 percent). The study also showed statistical significant results on other gender role attitudes in which council members showed lower traditional gender role attitudes compared to non-council members on the beliefs that "men should not help with household chores -- 19 vs. 30 percent," "better to educate boys than girls -- 19 vs. 34 percent," "women should not have higher education -- 16 vs. 30 percent," and "women should not have the rights to express opinions -- 16 vs. 30 percent." The results from this study suggested that including both boys and girls in the conversation and understanding of gender equity helps establish a norm of gender equitable views among the entire community.

In another study examining gender equity, also conducted by Lehigh graduate students, the perception among students and teachers at the same schools showed a distinct need to bring boys into the conversation (Grace et al. 2014). It indicated that boys at these schools held more conservative attitudes about the academic abilities and aptitudes of girls than the girls themselves, and that most boys had only a cursory understanding of the meaning of gender equity. Despite this, the boys expressed an interest in being part of the gender equity program that supports girls at these schools.

Bringing boys into the conversation of gender equity would create a coalition between the boys and girls to help fight for gender equity. Including boys in gender equity helps educate boys on women's right's issues, helps them envision their role in creating a more equitable society and helps them understand how boys can benefit from gender equity. These important lessons carry over into society and the family to improve the lives of women and girls. In boys, girls could have an ally with whom to build a more equitable future.

Obama is right to support and encourage girls to seek gender equity in education. But it is important to consider how the other half of society, armed with a deep understanding of women's rights issues, a desire to support gender equity in education and the ability to see how they can benefit from gender equity, can be utilized as a powerful force in the fight for access and equality in for girls in education.

Sothy Eng, Ph.D., Professor of Practice
Kelly Grace, M.Ed. student,
Comparative and International Education
College of Education
Lehigh University