T HE Cambodia country report entitled "Women: Key to National Reconstruction"
presents a grim situation faced by women; a sad document detailing problems
women are facing as the result of on-going conflict, economic liberalisation and
the absence of a strong commitment to advocate for women's advancement. Among
others the problems include:
- the increase in the number of unemployed and destitute women,
- the increase in prostitution and the number of women infected with
- fewer day care centers,
- the declining income from agricultural production,
- the increase in landlessness amongst women,
- the increasing rate of illiteracy amongst women,
- the low participation rate of women in education (at all levels) and in
- the decline in women's participation in politics and government,
- one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world; and the high
rate of infant and child mortality,
- violence against women.
All these problems place Cambodia as one of the most dangerous places for
women to live in. The report will be the main document the Cambodian delegation
will take to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in September.
The three agencies (CDRI, CIDSE and Oxfam UK & Ireland) who provided the
Secretariat of State for Women's Affairs with the technical assistance to
compile this report feel strongly that Cambodian women have a voice for the
first time at the conference. At the last three conferences Cambodia was
represented by the Khmer Rouge.
The report presents an urgent need for
action. Cambodia is in need of a national policy and a salvage plan for women.
This task was picked up by the Asia Development Bank (ADB) who recently provided
the Secretariat with technical help.
ADB consulted with other ministries
last month, to get those ministries to understand and recognise the important
role of women in national reconstruction. Ministries can help achieve that by
putting women at the center of their mission statement. For example, what does
the Health Ministry plan to do to lower the maternal mortality rates? Or what
does the Education Ministry plan to do to encourage girls to stay at school for
longer? What does the Agricultural Ministry plan to do to sustain the livelihood
of rural women so that they don't migrate to the city and become destitute?
These are ways and means to improve women's quality of life so they can fully
contribute to national development.
To successfully minimize some of the
above mentioned problems it requires that ministries allocate more resources to
tackle women's problems. Furthermore, it is required that women are treated as
equal partners in the development of the family, society and the Cambodian
Some of the responses to the national policy for women from the
high ranking officials of the various ministries were disappointing. Not
understanding the objectives of the consultation and the aspirations of
Cambodian women, the officials sadly placed themselves on the defensive, most of
them saw nothing wrong with the plight of Cambodian women and advised them to
stick to "tradition" and not be lured by "western" codes of conduct or dress.
They seem to overlook that what women urgently need is the reduction of poverty,
illiteracy, skillessness; and access to clean water and better health care which
are stepping stones to national stability and prosperity.
Words such as
advancement of women, empowerment, gender inequality seem to have threatened the
officials. Perhaps it should not be surprising given the fact that deep seated
conservative tradition has gone unchallenged for so long. The tradition has
become so entrenched as to give rise to the false belief that women are not as
good as men - a belief held even among some of the educated and urban
The isolation from the rest of the world community is another
factor that promotes this conservative view. The past 25 years of isolation did
not just mean that material resources did not reach Cambodia. Ideas and schools
of thought were also shut off. So while the rest of the world was debating the
issue of women and moving from the concept of "women and development" to "women
in development", then to "gender in development", Cambodia missed out. It is not
surprising, therefore, that the concepts such as inequality in the sharing of
power or inequality in the decision making process are so foreign to so many
ears of so many Cambodian officials.
Cambodia development strategies are
twenty years behind the rest of the developing world as far as women are
concern. The whole nation suffers as the result of this retardation, and
bureaucrats (mainly men) are reluctant to adopt new development strategies
sensitive to women's needs.
International organizations working in
Cambodia for the last fifteen years are partly to blame for sealing off Cambodia
from gender sensitive strategies. Some organisations insist they did try but I
am content with my assessment that they did not try hard enough. I hope that all
donors are waking up to this fact and place women in the center of their present
and future projects to correct some of the problems mentioned above, and to
ensure that their contributions are lasting.
It is obvious that members
of the Royal government and development workers need massive gender training.
Gender sensitivity is a fundamental prerequisite if Cambodia is to be developed,
enjoy an era of modernity and start a new chapter of Cambodian gender
- Boua Chanthou has been writing about Cambodian women since 1980. She is
currently a consultant to the Secretariat of State for Women's Affairs and a
Gender Officer to CDRI. This article is written in a personal capacity.