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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmer women take the long road to China

Khmer women take the long road to China

I N September thousands of women from all over the world will gather in Beijing

for the Fourth World Conference on Women entitled "Action for equality,

development and peace." All nations will assess what has been achieved since the

Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies (NFLS) a decade ago. In Nairobi all

participants committed themselves to enhance the status of women and the

participation of women in decision-making at every level.

Undoubtedly, in

Beijing, some nations will proudly present their cases; some will teach their

sisters how to combat problems; some will learn a few lessons; but others will

muddle along to the end of the conference, pack their bags, return home and go

obliviously on under the rule of law of female subordination.

Conference

organizers (the UN) have been encouraging women all over the world to publicize

the event; to talk about the conference to people from all walks of life, in the

hills, the rivers, the farms, at sea, the valleys, the cities. Making Beijing

successful is to tell women that there is a conference to discuss ways of

improving their lot. In Cambodia, a lack of money and communications have

stymied the Secretariat of State for Women's Affairs and NGOs from fully

publicizing the conference.

What will Cambodia have to say in Beijing?

What has Cambodia achieved in the last ten years in the advancement of women?

Where can Cambodia start? The 1993 elections is not a good starting point given

that the handful of women in the government in the 1980's has been reduced even

further.

Perhaps other nation states will be easy on Cambodia given that

the government has only been in power for two years. After all, it was the Khmer

Rouge who were in Nairobi in 1985 and signed the NFLS. Of course, the Khmer

Rouge has never told the world what they did for women's causes

since.

Perhaps it is easier while we are celebrating International

Women's Day to ponder what women have achieved in the last year, or

ten.

The Secretariat of State for Women's Affairs is the body to protect

and enhance women's interests. The secretariat's priority was to draft the

Cambodian Comprehensive Women's Code, a very forward-looking document. The

constitution provided the context for putting women's laws and issues in the

mainstream. The code has been drafted and reviewed in consultation with local

NGOs, interest groups and women's representatives in government.

The

secretariat hopes that the code, now in its final state, will become the focal

point for discussion and will generate awareness of gender-related issues. The

next year will be exciting and challenging for Cambodian women as new laws are

implemented.

The secretariat is preparing a country report for Beijing.

It is entitled, Women: Key to National Reconstruction, and raises all the

problems facing women in education, health, employment, feminisation of poverty,

etc. The secretariat realizes that it alone cannot solve all the problems. Other

sectors need to draw up plans and strategies. The secretariat is not short of

ideas but needs the commitment of all line ministries. It is a challenging task

to influence them to ensure that policies are gender sensitive and not the

existing bland, unsexy policy statements which pervade the government. The

secretariat can use this as a road map towards Beijing.

Several NGOs have

prepared for Beijing. Khemara took the lead in their networking project Women

Weaving the World Together, which enshrines the spirit of sisterhood and is

bound to attract attention in Beijing. The Khmer Women's Voice launched Ban the

Land Mines last month. Their declaration stressed the disproportionate burden

women had to endure as the result of mines. The campaign will arouse the

interest of other sisters, especially the ones from mine producing

countries.

The Cambodian Women Development Association concentrates on

the campaign against Aids and for birth spacing. With increasing numbers of

women infected with HIV (up to 40 per cent among prostitutes) the issue became

the huge concern.

In December, the secretariat hosted a Regional

Conference on Intra-Familial Violence in Phnom Penh, sponsored by UNICEF and

UNFPA. The conference produced the Phnom Penh Declaration against Intra-Familial

Violence which will go to the Fourth World Conference on Women.

Both the

government and NGOs have been busy with development work, such as family food

production, credit and literacy to alleviate poverty of rural women. More work

and money are needed.

All in all, the past year has been an exciting time

for Cambodian women. However, they have been constantly reminded of the on-going

armed conflict with the Khmer Rouge that had, in Dec 94, displaced over 150,000

of their compatriots. Cambodian women are celebrating this 85th anniversary of

International Women's Day with mixed feelings of accomplishment and destruction.

However, they have learnt to live with the contradictions and that is the gift

that has kept them going over the last two and half decades. Now and again they

sense some excitement. Usually it is well deserved.

- Boua Chanthou has been writing about Cambodian women since 1980. She is

currently a consultant to the Secretariat of State for Women's Affairs. This

article was written in a personal capacity.

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