Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Women’s Rights in Cambodia: breaking up with old traditions

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I have been taught differently by my family and society. While my parents – who value education and equal status of human being regardless of sex – brought me to today’s higher education the same as my brother, my society distracted me into a mixed environment where any step to move forward is always up to the debate. “Mixed environment” means that people keep telling me to follow the old tradition, while another side contradicts this practice.

In the recent past, Cambodia was a traditional society where women had a particular and defined role with a limited social life. There are various traditional codes of conduct for women as described in proverbs, folktales and novels, especially in Chbab Srey, “Women Code of Conduct,” on how women should behave. Here are some excerpts of Women Code of Conduct:

“Another flame is your husband who you stay with forever
You should serve well don’t make him disappointed
Forgive him in the name of woman; don’t speak in the way that you consider him as equal
No matter what happen we have to wait to listen with the bad word (even if he say something bad you have to listen)

“Women are supposed to stay at home, and always behave quietly and sweetly,” otherwise it will bring bad luck to family.

Moreover, a famous proverb continually practiced in Cambodia says: ”A man is gold; a woman is a white piece of cloth.” When dropped into mud, piece of cloth never regains its purity regardless how often it is washed. However, the gold can be cleaned and it will always shine.

Education or schooling was never a priority for girls. This explains the lower rate of women’s participation in today’s labor market. It was considered useless or unnecessary to send the girls to school. There is a belief that girls should not learn much otherwise they will write love letters to boys or men. It was also believed that a woman’s duty was to stay home and treat her husband properly; there was no need to learn. These believes stemmed from an old proverb saying: “Women cannot do anything beside household work.”

This old saying is truly reflecting how people perceive about women’s values and roles. I had debated a lot with some male counterparts who most of the time teased me not to study hard or pursue higher education. Their justification is the same thing to the old perspective that women are not supposed to learn a lot, since sooner or later she will become a housewife.

Regardless of this so-called discouragement, I challenged with this old perception that woman can play a great role in the society. As society kept advancing with globalization and the demand for involvement of human capital, we can witness in today’s societies that women gain status and play an important role in social development. Among many women, the following are some model activists who do not only resettle social problems, but also take leading roles in women empowerment regardless of life-threatening situations:

Chim Manavy: the Executive Director of the Open Institute, a local Cambodian non-government organization established in September 2006 with the main purpose to facilitate communication and knowledge sharing for women empowerment and social development in Cambodia.

Kek Galabru: President and founder of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) during the United Nation transition period. LICADHO is to protect human rights in Cambodia and to promote respect for civil and political rights by the Cambodian government and institutions.

Mu Sochua: The first woman elected to Cambodia’s parliament. Sochua has been targeted by her government for persecution and prosecution because of the feminist policies she has promoted.

Mam Somaly: Under her leadership, AFESIP employs a holistic approach that ensures victims not only escape their plight but provide therapy and education so that they have the emotional and economic strength to face the future with hope. Though, she has earned much respects, her efforts have resulted in death threats to herself and her family. Even worst, in 2006, her 14-year-old daughter was kidnapped by brothel owners, who drugged and raped her. This has not stopped Somaly Mam, but motivated her even more. Once, when asked why she continued to fight in the face of such fierce and frightening opposition, she resolutely responded, “I don’t want to go without leaving a trace.”

Nuon Phymean: She has over the past years offered hundreds of children working in Phnom Penh’s landfill a way out through free schooling and job training at her People Improvement Organization. She was one of the nominees for the CNN Hero.

Aside for these prominent female activists, there are still voices rising from a number of female grass-root communities of Cambodia who are seeking for ways to be heard for social justice. For example, at the launch of Amnesty International’s report on “Eviction and resistance in Cambodia: Five women tell their stories,” the first-hand testimony of five including Hong, Mai, Sophal, Heap and Vanny, women who have faced or continue to face forced eviction from their homes and land had been featured.

Today, 8 March, is International Women’s Day (“IWD”), when people around the world celebrate this historic day by marking the economic, political, cultural and social participation and achievement of women. To commemorate this 101st IWD, the United Nations declares its overall theme to be “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty”, while Cambodia has her own theme – “My marvelous mother!”.

I (the author) thus could not understand the real core value of women in a male dominated society without the guidance and model of my mum who treats her children equally regardless of sex and her great support allows me to be able to have my life mission achieved in both study, work and family arena. The celebration of the theme “My marvelous mother!” which the Cambodian government aims to raise awareness to youths the gratitude to all mothers in the country should send a strong message that women’s rights are needed to be respected, protected and promoted. Hence, if the mother who has sacrificed a lot for her own children and the country, the gratitude for all women should be that her voice for social justice be addressed.

At the same time, in order to ensure fair and full participation of women into society, women empowerment is a must. This can be achieved through awareness raising and education which are the main catalysts for advocating social change. Education shapes people’s attitude and skills in a way that enables them to achieve their goals. Thus, before anything else, access to education is a must. It also requires government and civil society including parents to promote gender equality and empowerment. Any policies (such as in education, health, economy and social affairs) should address gender interests.

More importantly, the internal stimulus by women themselves is very necessary. Women should see themselves as the agents of change. Instead of blaming the social tradition or accepting the male-domination social trend, women need to shape their positive thinking and be confident in their ability. Also, women need to understand their desire and struggle to meet that demands. It simply means that women need to be proactive and strive toward the goals.

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Chak Sopheap Twitter: jusminesophiaSopheap

Chak Sopheap rejoined Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) as Executive Assistant in June 2010 having previously worked with the CCHR as an advocacy officer, helping lead the “Black Box Campaign” to fight against corruption in Cambodia and the campaign for freedom of expression. She has also worked for the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, holding conferences and producing publications on democracy, human rights and ASEAN governance. Sopheap holds an undergraduate degree in International Relations and Economics and a master’s degree in international peace studies, which she completed from the International University of Japan. Sopheap has been running the Cambodian Youth Network for Change, which mobilizes young activists around the country for greater civic engagement. She is also a contributing author for Global Voice Online, UPI Asia Online and Future Challenges.