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Breaking glass ceilings

Cambodia's minister of women's affairs on gender equality, battling the male dinosaurs and why appearance still matters

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Cambodia's minister of women's affairs, Ing Kantha Phavi, shown here in a file photo.

Changing the SOCIAL role of women

Ing Kantha Phavi, Cambodia's minister of women's affairs, could easily slot into a position of power in Singapore, Paris or Washington. But being smart, sophisticated, multilingual and attractive does not always get you to the top. As one of her fellow ministers confided privately: ‘Phavi has four things against her - she's young, she's female, she's new and she's a party-hopper.' Well, everything's relative. Ing is 48. She's been in public life since she returned from Paris 16 years ago. She became a secretary of state in 1998 and a full minister six years later. Yes, she recently hopped from Funcinpec to the CPP, but she says that's because she's politically savvy and in a hurry to get things done for Cambodian women.

Are your male Cabinet colleagues interested in women's affairs?

Should I lie to you? I would be lying if I said they are all interested. They are not. But they are improving. In the past, they did not understand the meaning of gender equality, not even the prime minister. That's changed and he is now our best champion, and others realise what must be done. But I wish I could say the same for some ministers who still don't get it.

Why did the prime minister start to champion your cause?

He is a politician. He understands that women are also voters. And if you are doing something for them, they will vote for you. That's why he included this issue in the party's political platform. But beyond that, he also realised that when more than half the population, 52 percent, are women, you cannot exclude them from the development process.

Women are more than half the population, but you're the only one running a ministry.

Yes, we are under-represented and we must do something about it. The number of women in decision-making positions has improved slightly. There are more female secretaries of state and deputy secretaries. We have more women elected at the commune level. And we have convinced the prime minister that we need more at the provincial and district level. So we're moving forward. It's important to remember that gender equality is a government policy, not just a policy of this ministry, because women are the backbone of Cambodia's social and economic well-being.

Yet the best most of them can hope for is a low-paying job in a textile factory?

At least if women have access to that kind of employment, it's better than selling their bodies. Of course, our goal is to equip them better so they can get the same kind of jobs as men. Right now, the major obstacle comes from the women themselves. They still think there is a glass ceiling, but we tell them: No, today you can go wherever you want, but you have to believe in yourself. You have to have a dream. And it should not just be to get married.

That is why we want to change the traditional mindset that only boys are born to be breadwinners, and so they are the ones who are educated and equipped for that role. Meanwhile, the girls are just born to be married, preferably to someone who is rich - that's the dream of most Cambodian families. But that cannot continue.

For a vulnerable woman, is a job in a textile factory better than prostitution?

Of course it is. Under our Constitution, it is forbidden to sell your body - at least, in theory. Remember, our main challenge is poverty. And what can poor rural women with little access to education and other primary resources do to survive if they are not educated? Not much. Domestic work. Or being exploited for their bodies. So while prostitution is illegal, if they do it voluntarily to survive, we close our eyes. We accept it. But we do fight against the sexual exploitation of women who are forced to become sex workers against their wishes.

In Cambodian culture do wives tolerate their husbands having a mistress?

No. We don't accept that. In fact, we have a law against it. But for women to confront and negotiate with men here is quite difficult because most women are not well-educated. They remain dependent on their husbands, economically and socially. So how can they negotiate? But that will change as the role of women in our society changes. For now, we can decrease the incidence of this phenomenon, but we cannot eliminate it completely.

We want to change the traditional mindset that only boys are born to be breadwinners...girls are just born to be married.

When you come up against male dinosaurs, do you sometimes feel like giving up?

I feel like giving up always. At the start, it was very difficult trying to convince people that gender equality is not a passing fashion, but a genuine need for any modern society. Many of my colleagues accused us of just wanting to follow a new fad from the West. In the National Assembly, when we first proposed laws against domestic violence and the exploitation of women, they accused us of being revolutionaries. And yet almost a quarter of all Cambodian women suffer from domestic violence. So we have learned that while we need to be offensive, we must also be tactful and do things in a soft way, especially in the male-dominated Cambodian political sphere.

How do you respond to criticism about hopping from Funcinpec to CPP?

I did it because I think I can do more within the ruling party, especially when I have the prime minister's support. Of course, there is criticism and you have to get used to it. You have to keep your mind focused and move forward. I started to [work to help reconstruct my country] within a political party whose leadership I believed in. But then I lost that belief and I started to believe in another person who happens to be the prime minister. And although I was not a member of his party then, he gave me the opportunity to do the work, to come to this ministry. So here I am.

Is it difficult being a wife, a mother and a minister?

Yes, you have juggle all three at once, you cannot neglect any one of them. As minister, I am a public person responsible for providing good services for the Cambodian people. That means hard work and long hours. But I am also a mother and I cannot neglect my daughter. I do not want her to lose her way. That is the why, when I go home, I always try to spend time with her. As well, I am still a spouse for my husband. So I have to take care of him and of our home.

Do you have to worry about how you look more than your male colleagues?

Unfortunately, yes. Like women the world over, we tend to be judged by our appearance. We have to work harder than men to prove that we are competent, and at the same time we have to be careful about our appearance.     

interview  by ROGER MITTON



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