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Country director of CARE Cambodia for the past two years, Joanne Fairley. PHOTO SUPPLIED

CARE Cambodia: The sound of gender equality

While progress has been gradual, and change is something that needs a more concerted effort, something has long been brewing in the gender equality spectrum in Cambodia.

Australian Joanne Fairley, country director of non-governmental organisation CARE Cambodia, exudes passion for humanitarian causes which has seen her working in countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan and Indonesia for the past 25 years.

She is just one example of the many Australians who are working tirelessly to support Cambodia’s development.

Her work in Cambodia, since coming here in March 2015, aligns with CARE’s primary commitments to women’s socio-economic empowerment, and addressing sexual and reproductive health rights, and gender-based violence.

“I think there is a lot of gender discrimination and sexism globally, not just in Cambodia,” says Fairley. “If you look at Cambodia, one in four Cambodian women experiences gender-based violence in their lifetime.”

For the Kingdom’s female population of 7.65 million – last recorded by the World Bank in 2015 – that means 1.91 million women who have been subjected to some form of violence.

However, she notes that when compared to regional neighbours Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia is advancing pretty well with its momentum towards ending gender discrimination and harassment.

CARE’s mandate, thus, is to show the statistics related to this sometimes overlooked matter.

Fairley began her foray into humanitarian work first in Guatemala 25 years ago. Having left Australia at the age of 18, she studied in the US and subsequently travelled for seven years transversing Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Out of CARE Cambodia’s 150 personnel, she counts herself as one of the five international personnel: “It’s a deliberate effort by CARE to promote and utilise to the best of our abilities our national staff and our capacities at the national level. They are the future of Cambodia, not us.”

One woman, one voice
Last month, Fairley attended a global meeting on local governance. A harsh but true point was brought up – female leadership positions have nothing more than image tied to them. It merely ticks the box of fulfilling a societal agenda.

It was interesting, she says, as the meeting showed research data yielding how women who have political power are not akin to possessing equal influence. “There is always that guy in the corner doing the budgeting, or managing the accounts,” she shares.

“For the work that organisations like CARE does, it can show that we are working hard to get women into leadership positions – but, so what? And for what?”

Fairley believes there are tools to work with these issues from the grassroots level. In that regard, Cambodia has stepped up – albeit quietly – and proven that even in a country generally perceived as corrupt, NGO-led initiatives such as CARE’s Solidarity Association of Beer Promoters in Cambodia (SABC) has been welcomed and continue to be fully functional.

SABC acts as a union for beer promoters; women who sell various brands of beer at beer gardens were never seen as proper workers and often got harassed and belittled. A decade ago, CARE established a support group for these female workers to assemble as one loud and proud voice, legitimising their jobs and their worth as women and as workers.

“After three years we stepped away, but the group is now so big and successful, they have their own website and do their own fundraising. It helps protect them in terms of wages and harassment. And it helps bring them under labour law, which in Cambodia’s case is not adequate,” she explains.

Everyone’s responsibility
A framework utilised by CARE is its gender empowerment ternion: Governmental, relational, and individual.

The government is at the top of the triad, to recognise these workers as legitimate, and implement policies under their labour laws. “Our job is to legitimise [sex and entertainment workers, beer promoters, female construction workers] and bring them under the labour law. One of the bigger areas we’ve worked on is the sexual harassment law in the workplace.”

Fairley says women have to work on their relations with other people; women, other workers, men in their families and communities. They need to demand to be seen as independent skilled workers in the household as well as in the workplace, to make people realise what they are doing is legitimate and that they are equal as men’s counterparts.

Lastly, a woman has to act individually and educate herself on her self-worth, values, and rights. “The woman herself has to know what she is entitled to, whether she’s supposed to have a contract or maternity or sick leave, if she has to work overtime but doesn’t want to. You get pregnant, you get fired. And they don’t do anything about it because they think that’s the norm,” says Fairley.

“Roots of democracy”
Without sidelining other vital problems, CARE also encompasses the fight for transparency and cooperation between the citizens and their government.

Progress from the government has come in the form of the Implementation of the Social Accountability Framework (ISAF) initiative, which has been gaining traction within the country. In 50 districts across Cambodia, commune health centres, schools, and commune councils are measured by their accountability feedback from the citizens. Under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior, citizens are urged to give feedback to the commune councils on education and health services.

“It’s a huge step. CARE’s job is to educate citizens on what their responsibilities are in order to give feedback, then bring together the commune level authorities to discuss about the rights and responsibilities and what needs to happen now,” Fairley discloses.

“You have the problem of a perceived corrupt government, and low-level capacity working staff, and then you have a program like this. This is the future; this is the roots of democracy.”

Fairley also emphasises the role that the government plays. “The only reason we’re here is because the government allows us to be here, and the fact that they are open to an organisation like CARE to work in this context.”

Furthermore, Fairley expresses her gratitude to Australian Aid, which has been their primary donor for the past 25 years across a variety of sectors: “Australian Aid has been extremely supportive of CARE so we are extremely appreciative of that. Not only Australian Aid but also our private donors from Australia, particularly for our work in the northeast of Cambodia.”

To Fairley, without the passionate and selfless work from CARE’s national team – not only of present but all the past staff over the last quarter of a century that CARE has existed in Cambodia – the organisation would not be as respected as it is within the government and amongst its private donors.

“We have to keep going; we have to remember that our work provides the voice for the vibrant and eager youth in Cambodia who want change.”

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