Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Gender and development: rhetoric and reality

Gender and development: rhetoric and reality

Gender and development: rhetoric and reality

That the word 'gender' does not exist in the Khmer language is indicative of

the task facing the Ministry of Women's and Veterans' Affairs (MoWVA) in its

search for equality between men and women. To get its message across, the

ministry simply uses the English word.

Ros Sopheap, who heads Gender and Development (GAD).

"Gender and development looks at

the position of women in society," says Minister Mu Sochua. "It looks at

balancing the power structure. Therefore when we talk about gender it is not

just about women, it is about relations between men and women in society. We

need to find equilibrium."

Statistics for women make depressing reading.

For a start more than half of the country's women are illiterate. And while 80

percent of girls attend primary school, that figure drops to just 16 percent at

lower secondary school. Only 5 percent of girls make it to upper secondary

school. The Ministry of Education (MoE) admits the last figure has worsened

since 1999.

Figures for health are not promising either - Cambodia has

one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Asia at 437 per 100,000 live

births. The government's Demographic and Health Survey 2000 found that nearly

one-quarter of women between 15-49 who have been married have suffered physical

abuse. Thousands more women have fallen victim to sex and labor


To complete the gloomy picture, average earnings for women

are more than one-third lower than those for men, despite the fact that women

make up more than half the labor force.

Sochua says women have been

disadvantaged for so long that strong measures favoring women are needed to

bridge the gap.

"Government and society must open up opportunities,

special programs, quotas, [and] lift barriers that limit the role of women," she

says. "Men always say: 'Why only a special program for women?' My answer is

always to give women the time and the chances they've never


A GAD poster aims at women in manual roles.

Empowerment can give women the skills necessary to bring about

change - a vital step, she says, as no one else will do it for them. At the same

time women need to encourage those who have power to relinquish


Sochua says that to achieve equality will take more than the efforts

of her ministry. She says 'gender mainstreaming' - including gender as a factor

at all stages of development of all policies and projects - is key.


position of men and women, or gender, must be integrated in all sectors," Sochua

says. "It means not just the women's ministry talking about women. It is also

the finance ministry thinking of budgeting in terms of gender and development.

The national budget has to be balanced. Not so heavy on police and security and

arms, but an equal balance or even more for social development."


There is widespread recognition among NGOs that despite all the gender and

development work the aid sector is undertaking, the key to improving women's

lives lies with the government. That means policy-makers must be willing to

consider the importance of gender issues in all sectors.

The government's

draft Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper includes gender and development at its

core, as does the second five-year socio-economic development plan. NGOs say

that the inclusion is good, but more important is that government actually

implements gender equality strategies.

Ros Sopheap, executive director of

the NGO Gender and Development for Cambodia (GAD), readily admits that even NGOs

such as hers can have only a limited impact.

"The question is how to make

government aware of this gender mainstreaming policy and put it into practice,

not just theory," Sopheap says. "The most effective [means] for gender change is

if the government plays the role of gender mainstreaming. Policymakers are very

important - if they are aware of gender, they can put the concept into [their]


So what have the government, and for that matter, the other

political parties, done to put gender issues at the heart of the political

process? Very little, says Boua Chanthou, director of local NGO Partnership for

Development in Kampuchea (PADEK).

She points to the results of the

commune elections, which were held earlier this year, as a clear example of

unfulfilled promises about gender.

"There has been so much rhetoric about

gender and there's no meat in it," Chanthou says. "It shows that what we've done

for the last ten years is not gender mainstreaming, it is just


The results of the local elections prove her point.

Despite early pledges by the three main parties that women candidates would

constitute up to 30 percent of the total, figures from the Ministry of Interior

(MoI) reveal that only 951 of the 11,261 commune councilors elected are


The proportion of women elected in the communes is similar to

other spheres of politics, where women are severely under-represented in

leadership positions. The 122-member National Assembly, for example, has only 14

women members, two of whom hold ministerial positions. It is not that different

in the Senate, where women hold eight of the 61 seats.

Koul Panha,

executive director of election monitoring NGO Comfrel, says the commune election

results show the government is "not serious about gender main-streaming or

equality in elections".

Comfrel and other NGOs want a quota system, where

women comprise at least 30 percent of candidates. They also propose that

independent candidates be allowed to stand for all elections, so women can enter

politics without having to join the "very hierarchical structure" of a political


"But the government didn't accept our suggestion. They left it up to

the pol-itical parties," Panha says. "But political parties defer to seniority,

popularity and wealth, so it is very difficult for women to get on the


Organizing the commune councils is the responsibility of the MoI,

which not surprisingly disagrees with such criticisms. Secretary of state Prum

Sokha says the elections proved the ministry's commitment to gender


"Through this process we have contributed to provide

opportunities for local women to participate in local affairs," Sokha says.

"This figure isn't much but to me, I'm proud that for the first step we got this

number [of female councilors] and for the next election this must


Yet change is likely to be slow. Sokha says the government

will not enforce quotas of female representation. Allowing independent

candidates, he says, is also "not so suitable" and "would be too complex for

Cambodia" at the moment.

"It is not a good idea if you set 30 percent,

because it is not on merit, it is by numbers," he says. "This is coercion to

force women to fill in places. I don't object to getting women in organizations

but help them on merit first."

Comfrel's Panha agrees the 951 female

councilors represent an achievement in terms of numbers, but feels that it could

ultimately make little difference in terms of the advancement of women since all

are aligned to their parties and may be unable to challenge the status


"I'm not sure of the quality of the women councilors," he says.

"They have been nominated by political parties so I don't know if they are

afraid or able to implement gender policy and create change. Will they dare to

fight corruption because they come from the parties?"

Sokha says that

isn't the case and believes women will be brave enough to speak out. And, he

points out, "every party has a platform of poverty reduction, [is] against

corruption and for gender equality."

He also says the government is doing

a generally good job for women.

"The policy of the government is great

about gender main-streaming. We are doing work and we need to do more to respond

in a changing world in the global context," Sokha says. "The government has a

specific Ministry of Women's Affairs and it means we focus on women. The policy

of the government is towards gender mainstreaming."

NGOs say that goes to

the heart of the problem - the government publicly states its commitment to

progressive policies, but ultimately does little about them. GAD's Sopheap says

she hasn't seen an effective gender policy in place in any government


"We still find that gender mainstreaming is still in theory -

government and NGOs have not put it into practice yet," she says. "It is very

big and wide and all of us are not clear of the strategy. It seems that this is

just a word, a very big word."

Both Sopheap and PADEK's Chanthou say that

outside the women's ministry, gender mainstreaming simply does not exist in


"Lack of gender main-streaming is a main reason for the

ineffectiveness of the government in poverty alleviation," Chanthou says. "If

you don't mainstream, the benefit will never reach poor women."

One area

of vital importance in the process is education, but there is uncertainty even

at the Ministry of Education about what it all means. Secretary of state Pok

Than is not sure the government has got it right on gender equality, and admits

he finds the term 'gender mainstreaming' hard to define.

"I have heard

about it but I'm not sure I understand the issue," he says. "I think it means

that gender needs to apply to every part of society but I may be


"I'm not a specialist in gender, but it is about men and women

working together. Here in Cambodia we need to eliminate separation in terms of

women's and men's roles and responsibilities."

The MoE is regarded by

MoWVA and many NGOs as one of the most proactive ministries when it comes to

gender equality. It has established a Gender Main-streaming Strategy 2002-2006

program and a working group to promote gender equity in education.


initiatives include setting up girls' dormitories and providing scholarships for

girls in secondary schools and women at universities. Yet despite these

achievements, says the MoE's Than, in reality little has been done.


think so much has been discussed [in government] but in terms of practice we are

lagging behind," Than says. "I don't think the government has really clear

policies on gender, it is more lip service."

So where does the

responsibility for policy change actually lie? PADEK's Chanthou puts it squarely

on MoWVA's shoulders, although she concedes the ministry lacks the capacity to

spur the rest of the government into action.

"If you talk to [other

ministries] they say: 'We want to be gender sensitive, we are gender

sensitive,'" she says. "But they don't know how to do it, so it is up to MoWVA

to tell them how, and not to expect them to listen for the first


"And for line ministries to think [of gender sensitivity] requires

that MoWVA understands the issues itself and has the capacity to persuade and

come up with policy related to labor that looks after women's interests," she


"The ministries of agriculture, labor and trade are not going to go

out of their way to institute policies that help women. The Ministry of Women's

Affairs has to approach them and tickle them with new ideas."

MoWVA's Mu

Sochua admits there is a long way to go.

"At the moment Cambodia has

very little policy for gender development," she says. "Look at the laws, the

judiciary system. There is a very great lack of gender awareness, of women

gaining any power or controlling any resources alone."

However Sochua

insists that changes are occurring, and that the government is now looking at

issues such as HIV/AIDS, decentralization and education from a gender

perspective. She says she is "very encouraged" by the willingness of her fellow

lawmakers to accept the concept of gender mainstreaming.

Almost all those

the Post spoke to agreed that inequality is so deep-seated within the country's

leadership and throughout society that change will be slow. Most would not even

guess how long true equality would take. None envisaged Cambodia would be

governed by a woman in the foreseeable future. However MoWVA has set specific

targets for female representation.

"I will be satisfied the day I can see

that at least 30 percent of our women are represented at the National Assembly,

in the government and in local leadership," says Sochua. "I will be satisfied

the day that Cambodian women graduate with equal numbers as men from university,

[and] when at least 30 percent of judges are female."

Sochua feels there

is light at the end of the tunnel, and says she is working hard to do herself

and her colleagues out of a job.

"I am totally open about it - this

ministry should not exist in the next two or three mandates once there is much

more equal power between men and women in Cambodia," she says. "The role of this

institution should be to monitor performance, to ensure that such a [future]

balance of power is maintained."


  • Massive stingrays may live in Mekong’s deep pools

    US scientists have suggested that unexplored deep pools in the Mekong River in an area of Stung Treng could potentially be home to significant populations of giant freshwater stingrays, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish species. This comes as a fisherman hooked a 180

  • PM takes time to meet, greet Cambodians living in the US

    After landing in the US ahead of the ASEAN-US Special Summit, Prime Minister Hun Sen was received by over 1,000 Cambodian-Americans including political analysts who welcomed him with greetings, fist bumps and selfies. Hun Sen also met with analyst Mak Hoeun, who had allegedly spoken ill

  • PM reflects on shoe throwing: Free speech or act of violence?

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 17 questioned whether a man who threw a shoe at him while he was in the US was exercising freedom of expression or if it was an act of hostility. Hun Sen was referring to an incident last week when

  • Chinese tourists 2.0 – Coming anytime soon?

    Regional tourism is grappling with the absence of the prolific travellers and big spenders – the Chinese tourists. Cambodia, which has welcomed over two million Chinese tourists before Covid-19, is reeling from the economic loss despite being the first to fully open last November ‘To put

  • Prime Minister Hun Sen warmly welcomed by president Biden

    Prime Minister Hun Sen, as ASEAN chair, and other ASEAN leaders were warmly welcomed by US president Joe Biden as the ASEAN-US summit May 12-13 kicked off today in Washington. “This evening, I welcomed ASEAN leaders to the White House for the first time in

  • Third Makro outlet planned for capital’s Chroy Changvar

    Makro (Cambodia) Co Ltd is set to invest $12.7 million in its third Cambodian outlet, this time in northeast Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar district, an area dotted with high-end residential developments, as shopping behaviours continue to evolve in tandem with economic growth. The Cambodian Investment