Catherine V. Harry is 23, has 243,000 Facebook followers, generates between $1,000 to $2,000 a month from her vlog, A Dose of Cath, which focuses on sexual and reproductive health, and she doesn’t much care if people disagree with her on women’s rights as long as they discuss the topics she considers important.
In Cambodia, what sets her apart is her willingness to take on the traditional social and cultural code, the chbap srey, which defines expectations for Cambodian women. Although no longer taught in schools, it is a mindset with deep cultural roots that sees good women as quiet and obedient. Harry, however, sees it as a tool of oppression, one that enshrines gender inequality and masks violence toward women in and out of their homes by encouraging them to remain silent.
Harry started her women’s rights advocacy in 2012 as a blogger confronting the chbap srey. She launched her Facebook vlog in February 2017 with enough weekly topics mapped out to see her through the first 50 weeks.
She posts every Saturday night, a time slot that appeals to her audience, mostly young women like herself.
“I talk to them as friends,” she says. “I won’t lecture them so I can be one of their friends. I share what I know to them. So, they can relate themselves to what I share.”
Taking on taboo topics
Harry vlogs about taboo topics, such as menstruation, contraception, abortion. Most of her clips average about 100,000 views. A post on virginity, “Is the value of women determined by virginity?,” has passed 2 million hits and thousands of comments — not bad in a country of 16.3 million people, 6.8 million of them on Facebook.
Harry intentionally selects what she describes as “the controversial topics” and issues a call to action with each post.
She responds to all comments and appreciates negative feedback because, as her vlog production assistant and boyfriend, Panha Chum, the 25-year-old owner of a Phnom Penh translation firm, says, “At least they are able to understand what we want them to know.”
“I want people to debate about the topics that I raise. Their disagreement won’t matter much to me,” Harry said.
Not everyone appreciates Harry’s outspokenness, said Chindavotey Ly, coordinator of the Student Success Program and former president of the student senate at Pannasastra University of Cambodia.
“But when she talks about those topics, both men and women can understand that those are the issues of women’s rights,” Ly said.
Within a year of the launch of the vlog, Forbes magazine put Harry on its “30 under 30” list for Asia.
“It is important to have a debate on the topics that have not been discussed or have been restricted,” said Chantevy Khoun, who heads the Women’s Rights Team at ActionAid Cambodia, which has worked with Harry. “She … dares to break the taboos.”
Harry wasn’t always a taboo-buster. Born in Phnom Penh, her parents, Solyna Svay and Sambath Hun, named her Soksovankesor Sambath, and raised her conservatively. Her father stressed things like not wearing short shorts in public, and not meeting friends in the evening.
“When I was young … I didn’t care about gender and inequality in the society,” Harry said. That changed in junior high when, without internet access at home, she began going online at coffee shops “to learn about social issues. … I think my life has changed since then.” She also became involved with the Love 9 project at BBC. “I met many people who were passionate about women’s rights. I took action. I eventually became who I am today.”
New name, life at 17
Harry cast aside Soksovankesor Sambath when she was 17 and took the name Catherine V. Harry, to represent her new personality and worldview.
Her mother embraced her new daughter.
“My mother was so tough on me when I was young. She dictated all my decisions. I told myself that I wouldn’t pass it on to my daughter,” Solyna Svay said. “My daughter … lacked confidence when she was young. Now she contributes; she helps society. She empowers other girls to make decisions independently and to challenge traditional … practices.”
Harry defines feminism as people who work to promote the equality of all people.
“Sometimes, when I drive or ride on the road, I have been catcalled by strangers,” Harry said. “I, sometimes, have been followed or approached by strangers after dark. So, my freedom of movement is not granted. I feel I am living under pressure and unsafe.”
Men lose, too
Cambodia’s patriarchal norms also hurt men, Harry says, because “a man cannot reveal his emotion. Sometimes male victims of rape and sexual violence are discouraged to speak [because] culturally a man is not considered a victim of rape.”
Harry, often criticized, isn’t considering backing down anytime soon.
“I touch the sensitive issues of the society. If there will be no negative comments on my videos, I don’t think it would be effective. I want people to start discussing the topics. People, who agree or disagree with what I am doing, have a platform to exchange their ideas,” Harry said.
“I think it is not a bad thing, but conservatives find it intensely unacceptable,” said Solyna Svay, who worries about Harry, “but I’m still positive. Others’ comments are others’ issues.”
Harry said that while many people support and appreciate her work, many disagree with and devalue it. Some of her friends unfriended and unfollowed her on Facebook.
Some still prefer to preserve a norm that Harry deems oppressive, the chbab srey.
“A friend of mine said, ‘That is not in the school’s curriculum anymore. Why would you care about it, while others wouldn’t?’ ” Harry said.
“That person doesn’t understand that the concept of chbab srey is embedded in people’s minds. Whether we have known it or not, we still practice it,” she added.
But things do change. Harry now has her father’s full support.
“My dad debates with people who criticized me on my Facebook page,” Harry said. “He explains to them that I want changes on women’s rights.”
Harry’s boyfriend, Chum, another convert, says “feminism is not just about women — it is for all.” Harry’s stance is, in his mind, “logical. Humans should be equal.”