The Constructive Cambodian
Senior writer Kounila Keo tells of the recounts the fall of matriarchy in Cambodia and calls on women to right the situation.
Kounila Keo is a freelance journalist previously published in the Los Angeles Times, ABC Australia and Agence France Presse. She will be one of the featured speakers at next months inaugural TEDxPhnomPenh conference, which will be available online at tedxphnompenh.com. Her byline appeared in Lift’s first issue.
In Cambodian society, which was matriarchal from its foundation, the question of why so few women hold top positions in the government, NGO community and private sector seems to escape all who attempt an answer.
Like their male counterparts, women also desire a share of the economic benefits being made available in today’s rapidly advancing society, but it seems that these changes are more like growing pains for women, who still face countless barriers in order to access the top echelon of power brokers in a country where those who make decisions almost invariably receive a handsome reward, regardless of the merit of their wisdom.
Cambodia’s government, as part of their efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals established along with the UN, has pledged to increase the number of women in top state spots from 13 percent in 2003 to 15% to 2015. Their intention is high minded, however, until the current state of affairs, where Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An, Minister of Women’s Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi, and opposition party member Mu Sochua are the only female politicians with notable clout, we should withhold our applause.
Looking at the world beyond the Kingdom’s borders, however, can give us a more optimistic view of today’s gender imbalance. It took decades for societies in the West to give women equal rights and pass women’s suffrage laws. Looking at why those changes were made, it becomes obvious that women’s contribution to the workforce runs parallel to their ownership in the decision making of their society. When women are viewed as an indispensable part of the labour force, it follows that they are able to make demands that might otherwise be ignored. While we can learn from examples abroad, the situation here is somewhat different and, one might think, even more promising.
Unlike America, for example, and its “founding fathers,” a precedent is already in place for female leadership in Cambodia. Queen Lieu Ye, the country’s original monarch, who ruled over a group of Khmer tribes, is known to have formed the Kingdom called Funan, or Nokor Phnom, setting a standard for women as premieres, not only in the family, but in society as a whole.
In the memory of Queen Lieu Ye’s matriarchy, the word mae (mother) continues to connote the honour of the female-being and, more importantly, traits of ‘greatness, leadership, or of being the essential element’. For example, you still have gender neutral words such as mae-torp (military commander), mae-khum (chief of commune), referring to anyone who holds these positions of power.
It is also worth noting that Cambodians address their parents and grandparents with the female first; “mother and father,” for example, or “grandmother and grandfather.”
No less important is the sad fact that many children and grandchildren in the country’s recent past needed to make no such distinction, as 90 years of colonization and the blood soaked years that followed left many Cambodians, some who count themselves among the most fortunate, with only a mother to look after them.
As is often the case after war, it was women who were left to raise the country’s children, with the bare minimum of resources at their disposal. When set in this context, you can’t help but ask what, if not leading the country’s recovery from a genocide, it will take for women’s social status to be raised?
Only a modern-day fool would argue that a women’s place is still in the kitchen. Women are, quite obviously, the driving force of some of the countries most important industries, agriculture and garments to start, but that alone has not been enough to significantly raise their position in society. The next step is to send women to school, so they can not only fill the lowest rungs of the workforce, essential as they are, but begin to climb the ladder to positions where they can oversee the uplift of all those still labouring for that day’s dinner.
But once again, it is not as if there aren’t already people standing at the top of the proverbial ladder, waiting to knock women down when they approach the top. As long as women are purposefully overlooked for executive jobs in the private sector and the highest positions in the public bureaucracy, even the combination of education and a strong work ethic will fall short.
While they may not be aware of it, the seemingly futile struggle for woman to seize power is a major factor in the decision of many parents to push their girls out the door to make money, foregoing a future in academia and the white collar work force. These pursuits, many parents conclude, are better left to their brothers.
Speaking at a conference to promote women in leadership last Sunday, Vathiny Ov Liljestrand, Executive Director at the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC), said that the majority of Cambodian women are still in the transition phase, and that they will require a push to reach the same level as men. She added that educators should be weary of sticking to antiquated ideas around gender, and instead look at the truth behind these popular perceptions. “Even in a non-profit world, which we usually think is led by women, not many women are at the top to lead,” she said.
There is no doubt that Cambodia’s society is moving forward, but, in following the sentiments shared by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Facebook, in a TED speech, women in general underestimate their own abilities, and a world where half the leaders are women would be a better world, end of story.
Outside forces are partly to blame for the static position of Cambodian women in society, but in the end, it comes down to women to step up to the challenge. In the Cambodian context, access to education is still a dream, yet to be realized. It will require the will of those in power, along the relentless and united struggle of women themselves, for Cambodia’s mothers to one day see their daughters invited to the table to talk.