“My mother hates it,” 23-year-old Tharoth tells me. “I don’t let her watch.” Tharoth is a female boxer in Cambodia—a country where tradition dictates that women be modest, gentle, soft-spoken and reserved. But in the nation’s capital, a group of girls are going against these expectations, and inside the ring to fight. The girls appear on national TV, with local stations allocating airtime for their bouts. However, because of the stigma, the number of female boxers is still small, with some of them having to fight as many as three divisions above their weight class. They accept these fights to gain experience.
Boxing was forbidden under the Khmer Rouge. In recent years, it had to be established again, and quickly regained popularity. With its rise, women began to take an interest, and eventually began sparring for different reasons: some for the love of the sport, and others for extra money. Most have to juggle boxing in between daily jobs, and at the same time, fulfill their roles as women in their households. Tharoth comes to her parents’ house everyday to take care of her ailing father. Thanks to boxing she is now strong enough to carry him around the house.
Outside the ring, the girls act very differently to their male counterparts. If not for their boxing gear one would not be able to tell them apart from other young Khmer women. They giggle as they fix each other’s hair before the bout. Yet as soon as they step in the ring, they transform, holding the attention of a stadium that is almost exclusively filled with men. The spectators are enthralled. “That was the most interesting fight of the day,” one says.
Cambodia is not always a safe place for women. In 2013, a UN study reported that one in five Cambodian men have raped a woman, with more than half committing their first rape before the age of 20. Gang rape, or bauk in Khmer, is a phenomenon that is far too common. In this environment, these young female boxers are making an important statement. “As a girl you are expected to stay in your place, be demure, accept your role,” one of them tells me. Beyond physical strength, these women are overcoming a mindset.
Hannah Reyes is a photojournalist based in Phnom Penh.