July 12, 2017 / 2:30 PM / a month ago

From saving a village to fighting aliens, Cambodian books show 'girls can do anything'

KUALA LUMPUR, July 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From a girl who builds a flying bike to save her village to a female cicada defying the odds to join a flying contest, a new children's book project in Cambodia is seeking to inspire girls to fight stereotypes and male dominance.

The vividly illustrated e-books in the local Khmer language tell the stories of eight different female characters who overcome challenges through courage and ingenuity under the tagline "Girls Can Do Anything". One story features a girl who invents a flying contraption that looks like a bike with bat-like wings to save her village while another girl fights aliens seeking to destroy her city.

"The availability of original storybooks for children in Khmer is limited. Content related to the empowerment of women is even more scarce," said Edward Anderson from The Asia Foundation, which is running the project.

"The books ... can serve as role models for young girls, helping them to break away from traditional subservient expectations and empower them to become leaders," added Anderson, the acting Cambodia chief for the U.S.-based charity.

Cambodia was ranked 112 out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap 2016, after scoring poorly in political empowerment and education attainment for women.

Campaigners say a gap in education persists in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation, with fewer girls attending and completing school, while sexual and labour exploitation remain a serious problem for women. The book series, under a wider initiative known as "Let's Read!" which aims to encourage reading among children, was created by Cambodian writers and illustrators during a "hackathon" event.

Prum Kunthearo, one of the eight writers, said it was the first time she had used a female protagonist in a story since she began writing books in 2013. She said her story "Green Star", about a girl who uses her knowledge of science to help a boy find his way home, was inspired by a lack of women in the science and technology sectors in the nation of 16 million people.

"Children should understand the importance of gender equality from an early age," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Phnom Penh.

Illustrator Pors Socheata hoped Cambodian girls would be empowered through the stories. "Most of the characters in our storybooks are males, especially when they are superheroes or have achieved something good," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Although the books are only available in digital format for now, The Asia Foundation said it is working with the Cambodian government and companies to promote them, while it explores the possibility of publishing the books in hard copies to distribute to remote parts of the country. (Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)

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