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The choices that bind: Misinformation, traditional values add to burdens of rural women

Or Son, 80; Or Soeun, 66; and Muon Rin, 51, photographed in Kampong Speu province yesterday.
Or Son, 80; Or Soeun, 66; and Moun Rin, 51, photographed in Kampong Speu province yesterday. Erin Handley

The choices that bind: Misinformation, traditional values add to burdens of rural women

With her grey-streaked hair and a medley of gold teeth showing in her smile, Meach Lon puts her young grandchild to her breast to feed. Lon, 73, has seven children of her own, and 10 grandchildren. Breastfeeding the infants in her brood is something she has continued over decades.

For Lon’s generation, there “was no contraception”.

“It is true that when the husband asks the wife to have sex, and the woman refuses, there will be violence,” she says.

Meach Lon, 73, who still breastfeeds children, lives in Kampong Speu province.
Meach Lon, 73, who still breastfeeds children, lives in Kampong Speu province. Erin Handley

Giving birth outside of marriage was a source of great shame, but so too is abortion – it’s “a difficult decision”, Lon says, and one that continues to lock women in a moral double bind.

For all the medical advances and reproductive choices available, many young women in rural villages are shirking contraception and waiting for marriage.

Ahead of today’s International Women’s Day, Post reporters visited a string of villages dotted across Kampong Speu to see how they tackled sex, contraception and abortion.

Of the dozens of women The Post spoke with yesterday, all believed abortion was illegal in the Kingdom.

In fact, abortions have been legal in Cambodia since 1997 for pregnancies terminated before the three-month mark, but it’s also legal if the woman was raped, if the child has an incurable disease, or if the mother’s health is at risk. So sensitive are topics relating to contraception and reproductive health that women often delivered experiences in anecdotes, stripped of specifics.

Between serving bowls laden with fish and noodle soup, Channa tells of how her unnamed cousin, a garment factory worker, miscarried at the factory.

In a different tone, San Thoeun becomes giggly when asked about her sex life. Stirring a large pot of palm sugar over a hot fire at her Kampong Speu home, she explains she has one child a 12-year-old.

“I want more, but I cannot,” she says, adding she doesn’t use contraception and hasn’t sought out a doctor’s advice about conceiving. “I haven’t thought about it yet; I am still thinking of business,” Thoeun says.

Nem Phally, 40, from Kandal, tells of a fellow villager, whom she does not name, who needed to abort her pregnancy; the foetus was growing outside the womb.

“It is illegal, and it is also a sin,” she says. “But it saved the mother’s life.”

Each woman delivered a similar refrain, the uncanny phrasing sounding almost rehearsed: premarital sex and abortion both “damage the reputation of the woman”.

For gender expert Kasumi Nagakawa, such a response comes as no surprise. In raw data recently shared with The Post from some 300 surveys conducted with women in Phnom Penh, more than half of respondents (167) believed abortion was illegal, and more (185) thought a woman shouldn’t have one.

Reasons ranged from the belief that abortion was “killing an innocent person” to it being “dangerous to women’s health”.

“I am pretty much used to hearing many horrible arguments, about women’s rights in general, but what was depressing [to hear] was: ‘It breaks the morality as the mother’,” she says.

“This perception is just the same as victim-blaming when violence happens. Abortion is nothing to do with morality and sometimes, on the contrary, women are forced to have an abortion to sustain morality [of her or her family].”

Even though the issue sprouts a number of ethical questions, Nagakawa says the choice to terminate a pregnancy should be recognised in Cambodia as a “fundamental right” for women, who “should not feel guilty when they choose to have an abortion”.

“What should be stressed is that abortion is not dangerous if it is performed in an appropriate way,” she says.

For 23-year-old Srey Pov, who is unmarried, neither keeping an unwanted pregnancy nor abortion left the woman in question unscathed.

“But I think it is better to keep the baby, because the child has never seen sunlight,” she says.

For Pich and Sela, both 17 and chatting while lying in hammocks, it would be better to abort than shame their families’ reputations, though both said they intended to wait until they were married before having sex.

Nearby, Pich Sam Ang’s twin toddlers run naked at her ankles as she holds her youngest daughter in the crook of her arm. Sam Ang has eight children in total the eldest just turned 18, and most were unexpected.

“Now I take the injection, because there are so many children,” she says, though she initially shunned the contraceptive method because it made her vomit.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Pich Sam Ang, 38, gives her youngest of 8 children a bottle in Kampong Speu province. Erin Handley

Meanwhile, for 50-year-old Kim Lim, even though her children came from desired pregnancies and she took contraceptive injections after delivering her third, their life remains impoverished and difficult.

All three children, aged 6, 8 and 10, had left school to work in a shoe factory, Lim says. Several other women also said they started using the contraceptive pill and the Depo Provera injection after having children.

Dr Var Chivorn, executive director of Reproductive Health Association (RHAC), said many people – including health providers – still mistakenly believe that Intra Uterine Devices (IUDs) are only for women with children.

“We need to know that IUDs can be used for all women who are sexually active,” he says.

He said women also stopped using the pill because it made them feel unwell, or they feared it would cause their breastfed children to become sick, or it could cause sterility.

For vaginal discharge issues faced by women that Chivorn interviewed on the outskirts of Siem Reap, about 20 percent sought out traditional medicine, he said, while across the Kingdom there had been an increase in traditional family planning methods, such as “withdrawal” or “calendar” techniques.

Hou Sophallika, deputy director at the department of women and health within the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, yesterday said her “priority is to increase women’s awareness on sexual and reproductive health and rights in order to promote accessibility to the available services through media campaigns, public awareness and community dialogue”.

Cambodian Red Cross president and first lady Bun Rany urged women to get regular check-ups before delivering babies in a speech in Kampong Chhnang yesterday.

“For pregnant women, I would like to request you to check regularly. Sometimes we think that it is easy, or [a health centre is too] far from the province and it is OK for the second or third child, but the fourth child can endanger us,” she said.

“I request all sisters to go to check four or five times before giving birth, for sisters’ safety.”

For Moun Rin, Or Soeun and Or Son, the age of child-bearing is long past, though they keep watch over a gaggle of youngsters.

Dressed in mismatched florals in their Odong district locale, they explain International Women’s Day is something they know nothing about.

What is all too present, however, is the knowledge of pervasive domestic violence in their community.

“The men and women should have equal rights,” says Rin.

“For some men, they are the breadwinner, so they are a bit arrogant and think they can do whatever they want to women. In fact, it is not equal.”

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