As soon as Sou Sokun finishes dressing his 3-year-old son, he walks straight to his 11-month-old crying in a pram. Sokun lifts him out of the cart, places him on the floor, and brings out a toy guitar for him to play.
With the boy strumming and babbling on his lap, Sokun needs to speak up a little louder about the pressure he feels.
“At first, I was very worried. I didn’t know how to take care of a child, because I didn’t have experience and I thought it wasn’t the type of job for a man. My wife was worried too,” he says. “She thought a man taking care of his kids might not be as thorough as a woman.”
He went to see his older sisters take care of their children, and watched many YouTube videos, Sokun says.
“Once I started doing it, I figured out how to dress them, keep them clean and feed them,” he says.
Sokun, 36, is a stay-at-home dad in Phnom Penh caring for three sons, aged 13, 3 and 11 months, one of a growing number of men taking on a job that advocates say is undervalued, underappreciated and entangled with traditional gender expectations in the country.
With jobs growth in recent years driven by the women-dominated garments manufacturing sector, and the Covid-19 pandemic spurring joblessness across the economy, they say more men like Sokun are embracing the work of being stay-at-home carers for their children despite the pressure and mockery they face from neighbors, former colleagues, family and friends.
Sokun describes it as a full-time job: He wakes up, cleans the house, showers the kids, cooks, does the laundry, plays with the kids and tries to get them to take naps.
“As a family we have to help each other, and not discriminate between the different kinds of work,” he says.
But others have not been so understanding. Friends, relatives and neighbors told him that “men should not do women’s work,” he says.
“I felt upset, unhappy. They told me that other men go outside and earn money while you stay at home,” Sokun says. “I told them I have to help my wife, and if I don’t do it, who would take care of my family?”
Saut Sokheng, 33, a former VOD journalist who resigned to stay in his Phnom Penh home after his wife gave birth, says he has faced similar disdain.
Friends asked him about his resignation in a way that made him feel “unpleasant and uncomfortable,” he says.
“They were surprised when I told them I had resigned. Then they asked me if my salary was much lower than my wife’s. They asked me why not make your wife stay at home?” he says.
“I think generally our society is not open to men giving up their careers, especially as their friends will mock them. I think we should appreciate their sacrifice.”
Uy Chanthon, a program director at Gender and Development for Cambodia who manages the Cambodian Men’s Network, says the expectation that men should be the breadwinners creates many problems down the line.
“Because our society thinks that men need to go out and find money, when they cannot do it they get stressed, and this can lead to violence both verbal and physical,” Chanthon says.
Chanthon has worked with about 30,000 men on education about gender and family roles for more than 10 years, and says he has found that many men don’t have strong support networks. He encourages them to “find peers and start to talk about their issues,” he says.
Just as women should feel free to seek outside opportunities to support the family, there should be no issue in men staying home and taking care of their families, he says. “We need to educate people about the value of both work outside and work at home — and no judgments.”
He estimates that in recent years the frequency with which he encounters stay-at-home dads has roughly quadrupled. “Because of economic reasons, women cannot stay at home — they go work in factories.”
According to a 2018 report by the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia, 85 percent of the 650,000 workers in the country’s primary export industry of garments manufacturing were women. The industry, accounting for 74 percent of exports in 2018, has driven Cambodia’s strong economic growth in recent years.
Bunn Rachana, executive director of Klahaan, a gender issues NGO, says society has long disregarded stay-at-home carers.
“We have very modern laws, and our law clearly says that housework should be [treated as] equal to paid work outside the home, but our society and traditions are different,” she says. “We need to value them, and we have to integrate such values starting from primary school to make people think it’s normal regardless of who performs the role.”
She says both men and women face unfair pressure when it comes to work. “Men are embarrassed if they choose to stay at home because of societal pressures, and women are expected to have roles only doing what are considered chores.”
Sokheng, the former journalist, says he sometimes misses his work reporting in the field, but is happy with his decision.
“For the first month after my wife’s maternity leave ended, I was a bit stressed being constantly with my daughter, but now we are fine,” he says of his 8-month-old daughter. “I can say that I take care of my daughter 80 percent as well as my wife — not as perfectly as her, but I am doing my best.”
“It’s unnecessary that 100 percent of the time men work outside and women stay at home. If so, you would deny women’s rights, and misjudge men’s capacity to take care of their families,” Sokheng adds.
Sokun, the husband of the NGO administrator, says he previously ran a barbershop. When he closed the shop to take care of his children, for a while he was also able to find work in the evenings playing guitar at a bar. But Covid-19 ended that opportunity.
The decision for him to stay at home was because his wife’s income was more stable, but it was still a joint decision that they both agreed with, he says.
“For everything in my family, we always consult before we decide to do anything,” he says. “We can’t ban people from talking, but we just want more encouragement than blame and mockery.”
His wife, Ros Chansothea, 34, says she doesn’t mind the questions.
“I’m happy and have the courage to say that my husband helps me a lot and does everything at home. Some people think I’m lucky, but some negative people think that my husband has no ability to earn to support his wife,” she says.
Beyond herself, she is happy to see society slowly change. Growing up, her father mistreated her mother with the excuse that she was not contributing to the family’s finances, she says.
“My mother had no power, and could not make any decisions. I felt very bad for my mom, and I felt very hurt,” Chansothea says. “Before … people didn’t value people not making an income for the family, but now it’s changing a little bit.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the timing of Saut Sokheng’s resignation.