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Khmer women in work of pride

"I will not be lost in the big city," a 65-year-old grandmother from Kratie told her husband as she joined a stream of women from all over Cambodia who descended upon the capital during the Water Festival for their own celebration.

The Cambodian Women's Festival, held to coincide with the Water Festival, attracted abut 800 women from 21 provinces. For many it was the first time in years they had strayed from their towns and villages.

"'I am given a chance to be part of this," a 52-year-old women from Takeo sobbed. "I could never have imagined it. I am just a poor women from the village."

The women contributed to a kilometer-long woven banner - reading

"Women Weaving The World Together For Beijing 1995", in English and Khmer - to be presented to the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing next year.

Pieces of the banner were carried in a procession to Wat Phnom for a ceremony presided over by Princess Bopha Devi, who symbolically took needle and thread to begin the job of sewing them together.

Hundreds of thousands of women around the world are contributing their own banners, all of which will be put together, in a show of women's unity.

The Khmer women also took the time to exhibit artworks from their provinces, and discuss issues affecting women in Cambodia, during their three-day festival.

Silks, knitwear and handicrafts were among the items exhibited in a rare chance for provincial Khmer women to show their wares to a large audience.

"Women have been doing this kind of job for generations but never had the chance to have them exposed in public," said Poa Kunthy from Kampot province.

Phoeung Sith, general secretary of Ponleu Khmer's Federation which helped organize the festival, said the event was a sign of the changing role of women in Cambodian society.

"About 20 to 30 per cent of the women get involved in men's work now," she said.

"Women can run offices, contact foreigners...they dare to go out with men. They are not afraid of being criticized like before."

But progress was slow, and Khmer women faced many dangers as well as the traditional stereotypes still imposed on them by some.

Abduction and sexual servitude were still a fact of life for some women, she said.

The federation had freed two girls from a brothel by paying $150 for each one to the owner, but lack of funds meant they could not do that often.

Sith welcomed the work of NGOs teaching job skills to prostitutes, and was keen to get representatives of prostitutes to join the federation, which has 675 members.

Others the federation wanted to attract to its ranks included women from tribal areas like Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri, and handicapped women.

To keep the spirit of women's solidarity alive and well, and to generate income, Ponleu Khmer has made a commitment to organize a handicrafts fair each year during the Water Festival.

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