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Barely a glimmer of hope for women's equality

Barely a glimmer of hope for women's equality


Srei On, getting a helping hand

FIVE-year-old Srei On smiled, clinging to her mother's

hand, and said she liked school. "I like to

study," said the girl, standing in front of her

family's one-room shack.

Although she lives in a Phnom Penh squatter camp

without electricity, water or sanitation, and her family

earns only 3000 riel a day selling grilled chicken and

cakes, Srei On is able to attend nursery school.

Her costs are paid by the Rasmei Sobbhana Women's

Foundation, an organization which helps poor girls like

her get an education. She says she has already learned to

count and write numbers.

Srei On, however, is one of the lucky ones. According

to the Cambodia Human Development Report (CHDR) 1998,

which focuses on women and development, women lag far

behind men in terms of education, health and wealth.

The report, compiled by the Planning Ministry and

funded by the United Nations Development Program, was

released Oct 19. It points out alarming gender

inequalities in many areas: for example, literacy rate

(79% for men, 55% for women), earnings (men earn about

50% more in most occupations), and political

representation (7 female MPs in the last 120-seat


"We have to make a great effort so that society

will understand [about gender inequality]," said Im

Run, Undersecretary of State for Women's Affairs.

Education, women's rights experts agree, is the key

first step in addressing gender inequality problems in

Cambodia. The CHDR notes that girls have a significantly

higher school dropout rate.

Although girls and boys have similar enrollment rates,

by age 15 there are twice as many boys in school, and by

age 18 there are three times as many - although the girls

who do stay in school outperform their male colleagues.

Girls don't stay in school for several reasons, but

foremost among them are a need to do household chores or

wage-earning, and "a parental perception that female

education is not as important as male education",

the CHDR concludes.

Indeed, Srei On's family illustrates many of the

problems noted in the report. On has a 17-year-old

sister, Ny Kosal, who had to drop out of school in 1995,

after completing only four years.

"I liked school," she said a trace

wistfully. "But the money we had to pay for the

school is very high."

The Sobbhana Foundation offered Kosal schooling money,

but she gave it to her small sister instead so she could

continue helping her mother sell cakes.

"I feel sorry, but we have no money for

school," said Kuon Seng, On and Kosal's mother. She

is a widow and says that with Kosal's help the family

doubles its daily income.

However, the girls also have a 14-year-old brother. He

sells sweets in the evening, but attends school in the


Asked why she sent her daughter to school but not her

son, Kosal said: "If my daughter went to school,

there would be no one to help me."

Yet the CHDR notes consistent positives associated

with educated women: they are more likely to send both

their own girls as well as their boys to school; they

earn up to 80% more; they are significantly less likely

to be abused by their husbands. "The low rates of

enrollment of women in Cambodia not only deprive women of

the right to expand their capabilities, they also deprive

society of the valuable economic contributions they could

have made," the report notes.

Addressing such issues is one of the prime goals of

the Ministry of Women's Affairs; unfortunately, the

Ministry is hampered by lack of funds.

Im Run said the CHDR's depressing statistics were

expected, given the deep gender biases she said are

prevalent in Khmer culture.

"We have to eliminate the concept that women

should not be involved in this or that," she said.

"When society understands about this we should be

able to do something so that women understand this, so

that parents understand that education of their daughters

in particular is important."

However, Ministry initiatives such as a planned

National Women's Center and rural credit programs are

constrained by its limited budget - only 0.12% of the

national budget. By comparison, defense and security

account for about 43%.

Im Run said the Ministry may run a laundry service to

help maintain the Women's Center.

The budget is "unfair", she said, but

reflects Khmer values. "Even among Khmer women, we

still don't appreciate ourselves," she said. "I

have heard a woman say that if she were elected, she

would tear down the Ministry ... so if women don't

appreciate women, how about the men?"

Im Run said the Ministry relies mostly on UN

organizations and NGOs to help it run programs to raise

awareness of gender inequality and improve women's lives.

The gap is also filled by private organizations such

as the Rasmei Sobbhana Women's Foundation, which is

helping 30 poor girls like Srei On attend school.

Three of its proteges have even enrolled in the School

of Fine Arts to study dance, something they never could

have afforded before.

Founded in 1983 in Site 2 Refugee Camp by Princess

Marie Ranariddh, the foundation started the schoolgirl

support project last year.

The foundation pays directly for school materials and

tuition fees, thus making sure the money is not misused.

The project is helping twice as many girls as in its

first year; funding comes solely from private donations.

The five staff members are concentrating on helping

girls whose families are living in squatter areas. They

also advise their families how important education is, to

give the girls options.

Although Srei On's sister Kosal gave up her chance to

go to school in favor of her sister, she betrays regret

when asked what she would have liked her life to be like.

"I wanted to work, not sell things," she



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