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‘I am a strong woman’: generations find common ground

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‘In my generation - and Yan’s - you could never imagine picking your own husband,’ said 70-year-old May. Photograph: Alexander Crook/Phnom Penh Post

A harmonious image of marriage and family is a cornerstone of Cambodian life. But many Cambodian women silently suffer abuse by their husbands and alienation in marriage. For International Women’s Day, 7Days went to Poum Orndongtmey village, on the fringes of Phnom Penh International Airport and talked to four women from three generations, all with very different backgrounds and experiences. Two strong older women talked on how they have seen a great deal of change and young women gave newer perspectives on what they want in life and marriage. Meet Yan, 70, who divorced her husband in 1981. May, 70, is widowed. Na, 28, is married. Tida, 18, has a very clear idea about what she wants from a man - and what she does not want. Julius Thiemann hosted the discussion.

7Days: What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
Yan: It is a day to think about the rights of women and to tell everybody about it.

Na: It is a special day for us to show we have the same rights as men.  

May:  Women can do whatever work they want, even in the different ministries, and we can go out of the home.

Tida: To me, it means that I can be the boss at work and at home. This is already my reality.
 

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7Days: To what extent are women in Cambodia free to do what they wish?
Yan: If a woman wants something, she has to talk to her husband first.

May: It has always been like that and always will be.

Tida: When I am married, I will ask my husband’s permission as well and listen to his advice. If he says that something I want to do is not good, I would consider not doing it.

Na: For me, it’s the same. If I want to do a job of which my husband doesn’t approve, I will consider not doing it. But if I really love to do something, I will do it anyway.

May: I agree with you, Na. I would try to find a solution with my husband because I wouldn’t want trouble with him.

Yan: If he said “no” I would listen to him at first because he will stand his ground. But then I would try to be really nice to him – cooking him a good dinner, for example – and maybe I could convince him. That is the way of women.  
 
7Days: You say you listen to your husband’s advice. Does he listen to yours?
Na: Sometimes my husband will just do whatever he wants. He works as a mechanic even though I don’t want him to because it doesn’t pay well. I guess it is OK because he really loves it. But if he did something illegal, I would do everything to convince him that quick and easy money is not good money.
 
7Days: What are your main concerns about the treatment of women by men?
Tida: Cambodian men get drunk a lot and hit their wives. When their wives have a baby, they often go to brothels to have sex with prostitutes. It is a problem you hear a lot about. I have seen it

myself. When I visited a friend in a different village, I saw her father beat her mother. My uncle hits my aunt when he is drunk as well.

May: My husband who passed away used to beat me. I am still upset about it, but I forgave him because he didn’t know that women should be treated equally to men.

Na: Fortunately, it hasn’t happened to me yet, but I have seen it.
 
7Days: What stage do you think the battle for better rights for women in Cambodia is at?
May: I think it is improving. In the 1980s, there were no rights for women at all.

Yan: Yes, that was a very bad time for women. I wished we had the same rights as men. I stayed in the hut all day and took care of my six children. My husband didn’t care for us at all and stayed with his girlfriend all the time. Even when I was in hospital to give birth, he didn’t come. So I decided to get a divorce in 1980.

Na: When I had my son last year, my husband didn’t show any responsibility for us either and stayed out with his friends all the time. I was really angry and told him that he could either care for us or leave. I wanted to show him that I am a strong woman who can take care of herself and her child without the help of a useless husband.
 
7Days: Yan, did you try to confront your husband with the choice of either showing responsibility or leaving the family?
Yan: No, I went to my husband and his girlfriend and told him that I wanted him to leave. And he happily did. I hear that he lives in Battambang with his girlfriend. He never sent any money to support his children; I had to bring them up myself by working as a cleaner.

7Days: What would have to change in order for men to show more responsibility toward their families and wives?
Tida: All people around the world should change their mindsets and not look down upon women. People also need to know what is happening inside families.

Yan: The government should pass more laws that protect women.
 

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Na (left, with her son) and Tida said they would not tolerate violent husbands. Photograph: Alexander Crook/Phnom Penh Post

7Days: How would you claim your position as equals?
Yan: I need to stand up for myself, but I also need help from the government.

Tida: In every community, there should be representatives for women who spread awareness about problems and deal with them as well. We had a presentation about women’s rights from an NGO [Pour un Sourire d’Enfant].

Na: I also went to the presentation, and there I learned that you have to report cases of violence and abuse to the authorities. And if your husband doesn’t change after that, then the authorities can take more drastic measures like locking violent husbands away. But the problem is that women never report violence.

Yan: Yes, because after reporting an incident, the husband may become furious and hit his wife more and harder.

Na: If my husband hit me, I would seek help from NGOs and the police straight away and also inform the public – I don’t want to keep things like that inside me.

Yan: I would still not dare to report if my husband hit me. Only if he hit me so hard that I bled from my head or broke a leg, I would do something like leave him. After I left my husband in 1980, people talked behind my back about me and said I was a bad wife.
 
7Days: Do you think it is possible to find a man to love in an arranged marriage?
Tida: I want to choose my husband myself, but I also want to listen to the advice of my parents. If they don’t like my future husband, I will try everything to make them understand how much I love him and why he is a good man. I would also make my parents understand that I will have to stay with him for the rest of my life, so I should have a big part in the choice.

Na: I am very glad that I got to choose my husband myself.

May: In my generation – and Yan’s – you could never imagine picking your husband.

Yan: When my parents picked my ex-husband, I was so unhappy and couldn’t stop crying because I didn’t know him. On my wedding night, I was so afraid because I didn’t know what was happening.
 
7Days: What would you think about living with a man in a relationship for a while before getting married?
Yan: No, that’s not a good idea because people will look down on you, and call you names.

Na: I think trying out a relationship is a good idea as long as you stay in separate houses. You don’t have to stay in the same place to find out if you are right for each other.

And if you find out that a man isn’t right for you, you just try to find love with another one.

 7Days: Tida, you are the youngest and haven’t experienced marriage yet. What would your ideal husband be like?
Tida: I want my future husband to have a good job and take good care of me. He should be gentle and not talk too loudly. I want him to listen to me and respect my thoughts and ideas. I want equality because I believe this can make a marriage happy. 

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