​Breaking through the bamboo ceiling Redefining the role of women in Cambodia | Phnom Penh Post

Breaking through the bamboo ceiling Redefining the role of women in Cambodia


Publication date
04 January 2002 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Sophie Wilson

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An uncertain future lies ahead of these girls bound for school. in Phnom Penh.

LAK ON'S day in the market progresses slowly. Long hours spent swinging in a worn

hammock above her vegetable stall are interspersed by the odd sale and a few minutes

sleep whenever possible.

She looks drawn: her day, which started with a trip to the wholesale market at

1 am, will earn around 10,000 riel profit. Most of that will go to her family in


"I don't know how much sleep I get, but I know it's not much. Normally life

as a vegetable vendor is not easy, " she says.

The 50-year-old mother of eight says she works in a Phnom Penh market 50 kilometers

from her family because, barely literate with little education, it is the only choice

she has. On's story, in varying shades and circumstances, is that of a multitude

of Cambodian women.

A December, 2001 report from the NGO Committee on Convention for Elimination of Discrimination

Against Women (CEDAW) states that discrimination is a daily reality for most women

in Cambodia. Despite the Constitution's principles of equality and the country's

ratification of CEDAW in 1992, "there is a lack of priority and resources supplied

for initiatives to equalize women and men," it says.

Minister of Women's and Veterans' Affairs, Mu Sochua, says discrimination begins

in childhood. "Do our girls have exactly the same opportunities as our boys

from day one?" she asks. "I feel there is a great deal of gender inequality."

Education statistics show male enrolments are 50 percent above those for females,

who usually receive only a basic modern education. While girls make up 46 percent

of the roll at primary school, they comprise only a third of that in upper secondary

school, and a quarter in tertiary institutions, says a 2001 report from CEDAW.

Literacy rates for women of all ages, socio-economic and regional groups in Cambodia

are lower than those for men; nearly half of women over 25 are illiterate, according

to an April 2001 report from the Ministry of Women's and Veterans' Affairs (MoWVA).

Education failures can be blamed in part on the Kingdom's troubled history. Prior

to 1950 boys were educated at pagodas, while girls were not schooled at all. However,

girls started to get educated after public schools were introduced in the 1950s.

By the 1960s they comprised one-third of students. This achievement was "erased"

during the Khmer Rouge regime, the report says.

Lagging enrolment for girls is largely rooted in the perception that they are less

likely than boys to make use of education. CEDAW2001 states there is a belief that

the man should be the breadwinner and the woman the housewife and mother. "These

traditional attitudes are barriers of steel preventing daughters from receiving equal

opportunity in their schooling with their brothers," the report concludes.

Chantoul Oung, director of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC), says girls

given the opportunity to go to school often cannot excel because they are also expected

to work at home. That is something Chantoul experienced when growing up: she was

expected to do household chores each day while her brother concentrated on study

and socializing.

"If a boy did housework he was not considered a real man. It is the same now,"

she says.

Although Chantoul maintained high grades, that tended to be a male domain. "Whenever

a girl was allowed to concentrate on her studies, she would do better than the boys."

Poor access to education and training leaves women such as Lak On with very few marketable

skills. As a result, Cambodian women, who comprise 52 percent of the labor force,

account for 54 percent of the agricultural and fisheries industry, and 75 percent

of the labor force in wholesale trade. But they hold less than 9 percent of Cambodia's

decision-making roles.

That is easily seen in Cambodian politics: there are only two female ministers and

three women among the 90 secretaries of state. However, this is a "marked improvement"

according to CEDAW2001. Traditionally a male role, politics is financially and socially

challenging for Cambodian women who tend to have less confidence and disposable income

than men, it says. A political role often means a woman must double her workload,

juggling politics with responsibilities at home.

Two-thirds of the 2.5 million working women perform unpaid work for their family


"In this administration the women feed the men, not the other way around,"

calls out one woman at Lak On's stall, provoking laughter from others in the market.

Swinging in her hammock, On says life was much easier as a girl. "We just went

to school each day, and then came home to eat. Now women have to leave their home

town and abandon their children for business."

The proverb 'men are gold and women are a piece of white cloth' underlies the inequalities

of education, employment and empowerment in Cambodia, says MoWVA's Mu Sochua.

"If gold is put in the mud it will clean off and shine again. If a piece of

cloth is put in the mud it will always be dirty. Rape, divorce, HIV - all of these

mean [a woman] will be stigmatized in the eyes of society forever."

Cambodia's women's movement was crushed in its youth by the Khmer Rouge. When Sochua

and her contemporaries reactivated it in the early 1990s, they pledged that the first

to become minister would rewrite the proverb. True to her word, Sochua launched MoWVA's

'Neary Rattanak - Women are Precious Gems 1999-2003' project, a gender main-streaming

campaign focused on education, health, economic empowerment and legal protection.


'A woman's work is never done...' The lot of the rural woman.

But the distinction between 'good' women and 'bad' women still permeates Cambodian

culture. Chantoul Oung says prostitutes, including those who have been sold or tricked

into the industry, are seldom able to return to their own communities. Those who

are "rescued" from prostitution generally keep their pasts secret when

they enter a new trade to avoid discrimination.

Becoming a 'bad' woman in Cambodia is as easy as falling off a log. The Women's Code

- a publication with hundreds of articles prescribing a woman's life - still impacts

on most women, Sochua says.

"We are told to wake up before the call of the rooster and go to bed after everyone

else in the family has gone to bed and the husband has been 'attended to',"

she says.

In breaking a rule as simple as making a sound as she walks, disturbing the crease

on her skirt or speaking against her husband a woman is no longer considered a good


"That is why our strategy is to do a lot of advocacy to change the belief that

discriminates against women," Sochua says.

In the 1995 edition of the code, Rule 150 reads that "although the husband is

brutal and beats the wife, the wife should not respond because others will find out".

One target of the MoWVA campaign is domestic violence, which, according to CEDAW2001

affects 17 percent of married women in Cambodia, but is a crime muffled by social


"We have a saying that if you have a torn skirt you shouldn't tear it any more,"

says CWCC's Chantoul. "If you speak about what has happened to you, you will

just make things worse for yourself and for your family."

CWCC works to encourage police to take action in cases of domestic violence. It also

works with perpetrators and victims of domestic abuse to offer a different perspective

from the notion that a man owns his wife. It worked with other NGOs and the ministry

on a December, 2001 draft domestic violence bill.

Sochua says that the domestic violence bill, which she describes as "a law drafted

for women by women", combined with the registration of 12,053 women as commune

election candidates, mark significant progress in improving women's rights in Cambodia.


The NGO Committee on CEDAW, made up of 62 organizations, emphasizes the importance

of such strategies in giving a voice to Cambodian women. However, progress towards

improving women's rights in general has been slow, it says.

"A major obstacle is the perception that many people see the promotion of women's

rights as a threat to power, values and interests of the status quo and those people

in power."

Chantoul Oung is optimistic for the future of women in Cambodia. "During the

seventies we missed out in joining [women's movements in] other countries, but now

it is moving quite quickly," she says.

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