Cambodian girl used to be compared to a piece of cotton wool and a boy to a diamond. When dropped into mud, a diamond
can be washed as clean and sparkling as before, while cotton wool can never regain its purity once it has been
The "mud," to a traditional Cambodian, could be simply the act of falling in love. Cambodian parents
usually advise a son against marrying a girl who falls in love with him before the wedding night, because girls
who might engage in premarital sex are considered beyond redemption.
The discrimination against women in Cambodian culture became even more difficult for those women who emerged from
the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), which killed more than a million Cambodians by starvation or
Women survived the starvation better than men and were sometimes spared the political slayings. For these reasons-and
also because they did not serve as soldiers during the last two decades of warfare-women now constitute a disproportionate
majority of the labor force. Today, adult women compose up to 65 percent of the population, and as much as 65 to
75 percent of the able-bodied population.
Women, then, are the dominant economic group-while still being the "cotton wool" of this patriarchal
society. They are often the main breadwinners in a household, run most small businesses, and are a major force
in agricultural production. It is primarily women who have borne the brunt of more than a decade of international
economic sanctions, and it is women whose livelihoods-and lives-have been jeopardized by the recent U.N.-sponsored
One must first try to imagine what life was like for women in the years following 1979, when the Vietnamese ousted
the Khmer Rouge and allowed people to return to their villages and previous occupations. Many women went back to
find that their family homes had been destroyed and their whole way of life shattered: members of their families
had been killed or were missing; their clothing, cooking utensils, agricultural tools, and animals were gone; their
land had been ravaged.
But the women's suffering evoked little international response. In 1979, Cambodia was the target of a U.S.-led
economic embargo and became the only "Third World" country refused United Nations development aid.
The original argument for the denial of aid was that the Vietnamese were occupying the country. The truth is that
the Vietnamese army, which liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, was welcomed by the people-at least for the
first few years. Some, especially Vietnamese advisers, outlived their welcome and started to leave by 1981; the
troops were gone by 1989.
The post-Pol Pot Communist government, led by Chea Sim, Hun Sen, and Heng Samrin, managed with few resources to
return Cambodia's social, cultural, and economic life to a respectable level, however poor.
After a short time, Cambodians once again could send their children to schools, earn a living, buy their food in
markets, and practice Buddhism, all of which were prohibited during the Khmer Rouge period. The government's collective
farm policies especially helped widows with young children; this system ensured an equal share of produce for women
who were then neither materially nor physically equipped for farming-it gave them time to get on their feet again.
The State of Cambodia government had begun economic liberalization by the early 1980s, but the West maintained
that the international economic isolation would continue until a "comprehensive" political settlement
was reached to end the ongoing civil war between the government, the Khmer Rouge, and other opposition factions.
These policies have helped make Cambodia one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite all the back-breaking
work of women, poverty is still widespread, especially among the almost 40 percent of families headed by women;
studies over the last 13 years revealed that women remain consistently among the poorest in every village.
Most of Cambodia's estimated 8.5 million people live below the poverty line with a estimated per capita income
of $110. This is a country perennially short of food. There is no supply of clean water and not enough medicine.
Agriculturally, the embargo has meant that equipment ranging from tractors to shovels could not be purchased by
(or donated to) Cambodia; tools, irrigation pumps, draft animals, vaccines for animals, and fertilizers have been
very difficult to come by.
This lack of basic infrastructure causes one fourth of Cambodian children to die before reaching the age of five.
Raising children in such circumstances is a daunting task.
Mao Yung is a 50-year-old widow in the Peam Ro district of Prey Veay province, who has brought up six children,
ages 16 to 32. They all lived through "Pol Pot time."
Her husband was arrested and killed with five other villagers by the Khmer Rouge in 1976, when her sixth child
was only one month old. Soon after, her three eldest children were also taken away. She raced to the warehouse
where they were being held, and demanded that the Khmer Rouge kill her first if they were going to kill her children.
As a result of her brave protest, the children were later released.
Yung and her three younger sons live in a shack built of palm leaves. Her former, more substantial, house, which
had been built by her husband, was dismantled by Pol Pot forces. A few years ago, one of her sons joined the army
and was injured in a battle against the Khmer Rouge. Around the same time, her youngest son contracted measles
and, because of a lack of medicine, became blind.
Rice farming has been Yung's main occupation. During the rice-growing season, she says, "we are busy nonstop
for four months. We wake up very early in the morning, cook rice and pack our lunch, walk for one hour to the field,
and are ready to start work at 6 a.m."
Friends and relatives will often help her with the heavy work, such as plowing the fields. But she has to do many
tasks herself, including patching her roof, making ax and knife handles, and driving an oxcart.
Yung is able to grow enough rice for her family to live on, but each year she faces the same problems of not having
enough fertilizer, insecticide, seeds, or irrigation pumps to boost her production. To make ends meet in the non-rice
growing season, Yung sells cakes, gathers firewood, and tends coconut and banana trees.
Yet despite the responsibilities women like Yung have taken on, Cambodian women are still expected to behave in
accordance with the wishes of their families. They are expected to be more soft-spoken than the men and do more
work around the house than their brothers. They are not encouraged to stay in school or make decisions about their
Cambodian women are usually reticent when talking about their status, but the burden they carry is so striking
that some have begun to refer to themselves as "the spine of the family."
Another result of the sex ratio imbalance is that polygamy-although illegal-is commonly practiced, particularly
in the cities. Urban women feel vulnerable living alone and are socially, financially, and emotionally pressured
to accept a partner, even a married one. Divorce is legal but still socially unacceptable. Many women are forced
to endure an unhappy marriage, knowing full well that the competition for men is fierce. The situation is favorable
for men, and many men exploit it.
The country's economic weakness has also been skillfully exploited: the Cambodian government, made desperate by
the country's poverty and the economic sanctions, agreed to peace talks.
As a "solution" to end the civil war, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council
proposed a settlement that included the Khmer Rouge, along with the factions of former Prime Minister Son Sann,
Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and the State of Cambodia government.
At no stage during these negotiations did the Security Council try to exclude the Khmer Rouge, maintaining that
they were too powerful to be shut out. The strength of the Khmer Rouge is due to their indirect funding by China,
as a means to subvert the Vietnamese-backed Communist government in Phnom Penh. (The U.S. and China have also obstructed
international efforts to put the Khmer Rouge on trial for genocide.) So, on Oct. 23, 1991, 19 nations signed the
U.N. agreement on Cambodia, which calls for elections to be held by May 1993. The economic embargo was finally
lifted in January of this year.
But the reality is that a democratic election (which would be Cambodia's first) is impossible in an unstable economic,
political, and military environment that is fostered by the world's continuing enforcement of Cambodia's poverty.
Over the years, the U.N. Development Program has accumulated $80 million in unspent money earmarked for Cambodia-funds
that should be released now.
The people's living standards must improve, especially in the rural areas and especially among women. Women are
going to be an important factor in this election, as they are the majority. It is crucial that their livelihoods
are secure, so that they are beyond intimidation by various political factions. To improve their living standards,
U.N. aid should concentrate specifically on women.
The success of the U.N. agreement to find peace for the Cambodian people depends wholly on the willingness of Cambodia's
four main political factions to play by the rules.
Given the Khmer Rouge's record in playing only by their own rules, this agreement imposes an enormous risk on the
Cambodians, as well as long-range uncertainties. Through this agreement, the United Nations has in fact legitimized
the Khmer Rouge as a political force.
The Cambodian people are, of course, the ones who know the Khmer Rouge best-their lies, tricks, and terrorism.
These people were never given an opportunity to approve or reject this peace agreement, and last November's attack
on Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan shows that the members of the U.N. Security Council underestimated the suffering
of Cambodians under Khmer Rouge rule.
Despite the truce, Khmer Rouge attacks on villages have escalated, and the U.N. seems at a loss as to how to respond.
The tasks of supervising the cease-fire and disarming the Khmer Rouge might be beyond the U.N.'s capacity-a possibility
that calls into question whether Cambodian women and children, already survivors of years of war, will be able
to survive this "peace."
- Chanthou Boua was born in Kompong Cham province. She has written extensively on Cambodian women and has
also been a consultant to various aid programs in Cambodia. She is a founder of the Washington, D.C.-based group,
Campaign to Oppose the Return of the Khmer Rouge.