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Cultural standards prevent progress on women's issues

Despite the celebration of International Women's Day Sunday, double standards favouring men are still the norm in Cambodia, say advocates.

THE Khmer proverb that says   "men are like gold and women are like cloth" is often used by Cambodian human rights advocates to demonstrate how cultural norms often collide with the rights of the individual.

The proverb, said Luke Bearup, the Children in Crisis regional coordinator for World Vision Asia Pacific, aptly describes the difficulties in advocating equality in the Kingdom.

"It is globally accepted that women face a one-in-three chance of domestic violence within their lifetime," Bearup said Sunday.

International Women's Day is historically an opportunity to reflect on gender issues in an attempt to advance equality and to promote the advancement of women worldwide.

But sexual inequality is so ingrained in Cambodian culture that most women are not aware of what their rights are, said Hung Nary, project manager at Gender and Development Cambodia.

Hung Nary, who spoke at a gathering of more than 500 people in Kampong Chhnang province over the weekend in an attempt to educate women about their rights, said residents were eager to pose questions to the district governor.

"The women were keen to talk about land titles, birth certificates and marriage certificates," she said.

"Men are not including women on land titles, or attaining birth and marriage certificates ... so when the man finds another wife, the women are left with nothing."

Hung Nary said women in the province had also urged authorities to take domestic violence more seriously, claiming that what she termed "police education" was only exacerbating the problem.

According to the villagers, reporting violence only inflamed men's tempers and ensured a continuing pattern of abuse.

Through his work on gender equality and sexual relationships, independent researcher Tong Soprach says the legal disparities that exist between the sexes remain the biggest obstacle to gender equality.

"Prostitutes are rounded up by police and made to pay a bribe," he said. "Why are the men not punished by the law?"

Double standards

In 2003, GAD/C surveyed 580 youths aged between 13 and 28 from 24 communes in Phnom Penh. When respondents were asked of their feelings on gang rape, or bauk, only 13 percent of those surveyed accepted that forceful sexual relations with a prostitute was in fact rape.

In a similar study conducted by Tong Soprach in January 2009, some 22.7 percent of respondents understood that bauk was rape while almost a third of respondents did not.

Alarmingly, the study also found that 10.8 percent of males aged 15 to 24 and not in a relationship had performed bauk with a sex worker in the three months prior to the survey.

Bearup said that in Cambodia, as in many countries, cultural double standards continued to favour men.

"Norms that condone men's right to engage in pre- and post-marital sexual experiences, but stigmatise women who are sexually active, ultimately foster a sociocultural environment that tolerates violence against women," he said.

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