The changing role of females in Cambodian society
The question “What can a woman do?” no longer exists in the modern world. There are still many societies, such as Cambodia, that have specific ideas about what a woman should do, but there are too many examples of high-powered and motivated women in the world to try to fit them into a certain role or position in society. Globalisation has impacted on every part of Cambodian life by giving people access to a wealth of information and new ways of thinking, and its impact on women is a vivid illustration of the way in which being part of a global dialogue is changing people’s attitudes, for better or worse.
In the past, women were supposed to fit traditional patterns. There was not much opportunity for education or jobs. As a result, they stayed at home and served their family.
“Mum was a housewife and dad earned money to support the family,” said Suon Raksmey, a 23-year-old graduate from the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s biology department.
“Women didn’t have access to education, so they depended on their husband’s income to support the family,” said So Phonnary, an executive vice president and chief of operations at ACLEDA Bank.
Things have changed significantly in the last decade due to the influence of foreign cultures, beliefs, lifestyles and development through the media, social institutions such as non-governmental organisations and government-led projects. The influence of globalisation has created a notable gap between the generations of mothers and daughters. “I have noticed that my grandmother’s roots are still deep in Khmer culture and tradition, but my mum is different; she is open-minded and stands behind the changes,” said Ra Mo, a sophomore in economics at the Royal University of Law and Economics.
Mu Sochua, Cambodia’s best-known female lawmaker, explained in an interview with Lift that women now had a breadth of opportunities. “Women have a better chance to have access to education and are more open-minded, so they now have more choices,” she said, adding that these options extended to decisions related to family, love and marriage.
Mu Sochua is one of many women who have become part of an expanding female presence in the Kingdom’s government. “In 2008, we had one female deputy minister and two female ministers,” said Stie De Fin, secretary of state at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. “In 2009, there were 16 female secretaries of state out of a total of 95; 30 female deputy secretaries of state out of 205; 362 city councillors; and 399 provincial councillors.”
Women have also begun to establish their presence in the business world. So Phonnary is one of many women who have climbed the management ladder to take prominent roles within their businesses. She said that she was proud to see many women competing with men for leadership positions in the workplace, adding that the arrival of new technology and better education for women had made the shift possible.
Mam Sarana, an assistant administrator at Khmer Women’s Voice Centre, said that “women are now stronger, more confident and more economically powerful because they are able to make money.”
While globlisation has brought positive change to women in the Kingdom, there have been unwelcome changes as well, and attributing positive changes only to globalisation ignores the history of Cambodian women. “Our country has a well-built history,” said Sek Sui Sokhom, director of the department of psychology at the Royal
University of Phnom Penh, regarding the role of women in society. She said that at the outset of the Kingdom, Cambodia had a female leader named Soma. However, due to the influx of Chinese and Indian culture, the proverb “Women can never be apart from the kitchen”, started to take hold, making women the inferior gender.
While globalisation has brought a handful of positive effects to the Kingdom, there are some negative aspects as well. “Globalisation has generated a range of new opportunities,” said Mu Sochua, but she added that they did’t always contribute to positive movement. “A lot of women are only working as garment workers or construction workers – very low-paid and unskilled jobs, which do not effectively rescue them from poverty.
“The government should encourage people to use local products and strengthen the agricultural sector in Cambodia so that women can support themselves,” and that the government should also help build the skills, open professions and support small and medium businesses to help in the uplift of women.
Poeu Vanna, a capacity building, networking and advocacy program officer for the Cambodian Civil Society Partnership Oganisation, agrees that women have made great strides in recent years and says that she is optimistic about the years to come. “I expect that in the near future more women will get involved in politics, science, business and leadership roles,” she said.
Additional reporting by Sothea Ines