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.
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.
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
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
Perhaps it is easier while we are celebrating International
Women's Day to ponder what women have achieved in the last year, or
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.
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
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
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.
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.