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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Women's Day Highlights Gender Inequalities

Women's Day Highlights Gender Inequalities

UNTAC chief Yasushi Akashi spoke to the delegates of Cambo-dia's National Women's

Summit to mark International Women's Day on Mar. 8.

Akashi told the group of over 100 delegates, who had assembled for Phnom Penh's first

women's day summit, that the primary barrier to achieving peace and stability was


He qualified the remark somewhat by saying "the problems of Cambodia are far

too complex to be reduced to such a simple formulation," but he went on to state

that there had been little change in traditional gender roles. "Women are not

represented on the Supreme National Council, nor is any of the 20 political parties

contesting the May general elections headed by a woman," Akashi noted.

Despite their lack of political representation, Akashi pointed to the fact that women

comprised 54 percent of registered voters and constitute some 60 per cent of the

adult population. "It is also well known that women comprise 60 per cent of

the agricultural work force and nearly 70 percent of the state factory labor force-this

despite the fact that 30 percent of households are headed by women, who have, on

average, five children and work some 16 hours a day," Akashi stated.

The U.N. in cooperation withvarious NGOs are seeking to focus attention on women's

needs and their potential to get involved in decision making, Martha Walsh of the

United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) stated. "Our long term goal

is to encourage women to participate in the decision making process because women

in this country have very special needs and special circumstances. Women need to

be able to have a voice in how decisions are made because they have a major impact

on women," Walsh said.

Akashi related an anecdote as an example of how women can make themselves heard for

the benefit of the whole society. "Not long ago, an officer of called

Khmer Rouge confronted UNTAC officials in the countryside where we had been providing

food and medical supplies to the local people and told them to leave, saying 'We

don't need any help from UNTAC'. A Cambodian woman walked up to the NADK officer

and slapped his face. 'You fool,' she told him. 'You know Cambodia needs all the

help it can get'." Akashi said.

The UNTAC chief went on to say that poverty and poor conditions of life in Cambodia

bear harder on women than on men. "Few women receive good education. In some

areas illiteracy reaches 80 per cent. Nearly one per cent of women die in childbirth

, and 20 per cent of Cambodian children die before their fifth birthday," Akashi

stated. In the long term, he continued, it will be the responsibility of the new

Cambodian government to improve the situation for women. The government will be assisted

in its efforts by U.N. agencies such as UNIFEM as well as concerned NGO's.

At present there are 14 international and Khmer NGOs working to raise women's living

standards and concentrating efforts in areas such as food production, business training,

health and education.

"There is a large and increasing need for assistance and the NGOs can only respond

to about 20 per cent of the demand," Vice President of the Phnom Penh Municipal

Women's Association, Ms. Kien Serey Phal stated. The association was started by SOC

in 1979 to assist women but due to the shortage of government funding, it has had

limited success. One successful project, Phal stated, was a job training program

for poor women. The project started in 1992 with more than 100 members providing

training in hospital and industrial work as well as typing and English language classes.

More than 9,000 women attended the programs which were "very successful in helping

poor women and girls," Phal stated.

Phal admits that they are only addressing the tip of the iceberg. Life for many women

is a constant struggle as Ms. Yan Noun testified. Sitting outside her meagre house

with the roof poorly covered in old palm leaves, Noun, a widow for three years, talked

of her troubles trying to take care of her six children aged from five to 13 years.

"It's becoming more and more difficult to support ourselves ever since my husband

died. Everyday we make about 1,000 riels from selling cooked rice," she said.

Noun herself is illiterate and her four elder children, who are old enough to go

to school are also illiterate. "I have no choice to send my children to school,

there are no free schools for people like me," she said.

Given the economic growth over the last the year and prospects for peace and stability,

social workers have expressed alarm at the spiralling rural to urban drift. The flood

of provincial women and girls coming to the city is a cause of major concern as many

end up being exploited or being lured into the booming sex trade. Others flee to

the city to escape unhappy marriages or violent husbands, the social workers stated.

Divorce may be legal but it is still socially unacceptable, they said.

Akashi concluded his speech by referring to the woman who slapped the KR officer's

face," I wish all the women of Cambodia would react in the same way when faced

with that kind of intransigence. Their attitude would not solve the problems of this

country overnight, because nothing can. But with that kind of good, sound common

sense which, I must say, we do not always see in the male leaders of this country,

there is still plenty of hope for Cambodia."

Chief of the Asia Pacific section of UNIFEM, Irene Santiago told the delegates that

women were at a watershed in Cambodian history.

If women pulled together they could transform the structures of society, she said.

"You all see year after year how the Tonle Sap and the Mekong merge and at that

point change their course. So will putting women on the agenda and in your midst.

For what happens to a river when another river of the same size and force merges

with it? The river will widen and the water will flow more rapidly. But most assuredly,

it will change its course," Santiago said.



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