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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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."