Event Recap – Half the Earth: Empowering Women in Southeast Asia

March 13, 2017
Dr. Alan Lightman

Dr. Alan Lightman, Founder and Chair of the Board of the Harpswell Foundation and Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at MIT, spoke at an Asia Center Seminar Series talk in February on the topic of empowering women in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, in general.


Cambodia is the second poorest country after Laos in Southeast Asia. It has 15 million people, with an average personal disposable income of about $1,000 per year. About 85 percent of the population lives in the countryside, often in flimsy shed-like houses, with no electricity or plumbing. With only two percent of the people college- educated, shortage of skilled labor manifests in many aspects of life, not the least in healthcare. Cambodia has 160 doctors for one million people, whereas its neighbor Thailand has 2,000 doctors, and the U.S. has 5,000 doctors. In terms of rule of law, it is ranked the worst in the region.

To this dismal social economic outcome, a sad history is intricately linked. After Cambodia's independence from France in 1953, the ultra-radical communist Khmer Rouge emerged as a major power, taking Phnom Penh, the capital, in 1975. It carried out a de facto genocide until 1979, in which about a quarter of the population died. Intellectuals and capitalists were especially targeted. Then a civil war followed until 1991.

In recent years, as Cambodia's textile industry has developed, a large number of young women have been working in about 500 garment factories, and sending part of their paltry income back home. Sullen facial expressions are typical of these women, emblematic of their feelings about their lives. Cambodian girls are often taken out of school as young as 12 years old to work in the rice fields, then have to accept arranged marriages at the age of 16 or 17. Few of them can overcome social and economic obstacles enough to proceed to college. And for those few who manage to get to college, there is another obstacle: safe housing. The universities in Cambodia do not provide housing for their students. This lack of housing is not a problem for male students, who can live free in the Buddhist monasteries in Phnom Penh (where most of the universities are located) or rent rooms together. But these options are not open to female students.

Against this gloomy picture, Dr. Alan Lightman, Founder and Chair of the Board of the Harpswell Foundation and Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at MIT, has worked to help young college women and to train them to become leaders of their country. Raising money from private donors and small foundations in the U.S., the Harpswell Foundation has built two dormitories in Phnom Penh for university women, the first completed in 2006 and the second in 2010. Together, they house a total of 80 young women. These students are selected from a pool of 200 applicants each year, consisting of the top four students from 50 high schools around the country.

About 50 percent of the applicants belong to the top one percentile in the national academic test, a clear indication of their intelligence. To eventually win the Harpswell scholarship, sufficient for four years of college and qualified to live in the two new dormitories, applicants must demonstrate in their essays and interviews their leadership potential and an ambition beyond their own personal well-being, with at least a glimpse of the challenges in the larger world around them. The Harpswell students attend 20 different universities in Phnom Penh.

At Harpswell, the young women form a powerful sisterhood. They learn together, cook together, and dine together, as well as take field trips together for fun. They support each other emotionally and intellectually. Each of the two dormitories has kitchens, computers connected to the internet, conference rooms, and a library.

But these are far more than dormitories. They are also learning centers. Harpswell is a second university education, in addition to the regular classes that the students take. The facilities offer (and require) in-house evening and weekend classes in English, debate, discussion of national and international affairs, and leadership training, all designed to cultivate critical thinking, civic engagement, and self-confidence. Indeed, the mission of the Harpswell Foundation is “to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and Southeast Asia.”

There are now seven years of Harpswell graduates, about 120 young women, who are working as lawyers, project managers in NGOs, journalists, business entrepreneurs, government employees, and health care workers. They are on their way to becoming leaders. The graduates of Harpswell have formed an Alumnae Association. The alumnae help each other get jobs, stay in contact with each other, reinforce the mission of Harpswell, and have sleepovers at the dorms to mentor the younger “sisters.”

Harpswell's mission of empowering women is consistent with the development strategy of the World Bank and the United Nations. Experiences show that women are primarily responsible for holding families together, ensuring children's education and healthcare, safeguarding family finances, and building communities. To Lightman, building dormitories for bright young women in pursuit of higher education is like finding a perfectly running car with only the spark plugs missing, and supplying those few missing parts.

Harpswell's newest project is a program in women’s leadership for young professional women (ages 25 to 30) from all 10 countries of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Each summer, three participants from each of these countries will be flown into Penang, Malaysia, for a two-and-a-half-week intensive program in leadership. The aim of this new program, called the Harpswell-ASEAN Program in Women’s Leadership, is to bring about positive social change in Southeast Asia through the action of women.