T he Water Festival is commemorated every year from Nov 17-19 by Cambodian men and women throughout the country. It is a tradition passed on from generation to generation. It is a time of great joy and pride for Cambodian farmers who gather in each village and town to show off their crops, a product of a whole year's worth of hard labor. Throughout the three days of festivities, respect is paid to the spirits of the earth and the spirits of the water for allowing the villagers to live in harmony, prosperity and peace.
After more than two decades of war and armed conflicts, life in the rural areas will take years to stabilize. Hundreds of thousands of farmers are still being displaced and more than three million land mines are still buried in the fertile land of Cambodia. In the more secure areas where regular farming is possible, farmers must rely on heavy physical labor and good rainfall to grow their crops. Farmers in villages far from provincial capitals have very limited access to transportation - traveling to the next commune can require hours by oxcart.
What does all this mean to women farmers? What special problems do women farmers face? To understand this, it is important to look at women's contribution to agriculture, their social position in rural areas, and traditions about women's role.
Women contribute close to 75 percent of the labor force in the rural areas. Only 34 percent of these women farmers receive help from men with heavy work. Women farmers who receive no extra help from men are often forced to trade their big parcel of land for a smaller parcel, or even sell their land, as they cannot cope with the physical demands. In villages where some form of labor exchange is practiced, a woman farmer must perform two days of labor for each one day a man assists her with fieldwork. As Cambodian girls receive far less education than boys, Cambodian women farmers have much less access to training and technologies for food and agricultural production than men. And as Cambodian women must by tradition remain in the village, leaving the trading and traveling outside of the village to men, women farmers are prevented from finding outside markets for their crops. Their economic existence in thus heavily dependent on the male members of the family or on middlemen.
Considering the physical, educational, and traditional barriers cited above, how will Cambodian women farmers benefit from rural development program? How will they be guaranteed access to training and technologies? How will they be a part of policy and decision-making? How will they have physical access to training institutes being planned or constructed? How will they have a say when traditional crops are to be changed to cash-crops? How many women will be trained as extension workers? How many women will participate in exchange programs abroad? How will they have access to information on food, water, and methods to improve production?
To answer these questions, we must start with a commitment to developing women's human resources in a genuine partnership - not to consider women as passive beneficiaries. Long term investments to raise the education level of women and to develop special training programs for women must be considered. The need for this strategic focus on women, especially in the agricultural sector and in rural development, is well supported by the statistics given in the Country Report presented by the State Secretariat for Women's Affairs at the Second Asian and Pacific Ministerial Conference on Women in Development held in Jakarta this year. For example, the report shows that in 1988 only ten percent of the graduates from the School of Agriculture were women. By 1993/94 this figure had dropped to 4.6 percent. In Takeo in 1990, only two out of the eleven extension workers were women. These figures are especially revealing given that the majority of farming families are headed by women. Praise must be given to the international organizations and NGOs which have considered investment in women worthwhile. For example, some have promoted the participation of women in education leading to higher degrees in agriculture and in rural development, others have promoted the participation of women in credit schemes. However, a policy to include women in higher positions must be a priority if women in rural areas are going to benefit from future programs.
To answer these questions, strong support from the government to allow local NGOs and grassroots organizations to provide input in planning and policies is required.
We must also keep in mind these three strategies: 1) to improve women's knowledge; 2) to develop a strong women's network; 3) to enable women to plan action for change.
Guided by these strategies, the Committee for the Protection of Women's and Children's Rights of Pounleu Khmer, a federation of Cambodian NGOs, has planned and received the cooperation of the government to make this year's Water Festival a unique occasion for women.
Water Festival 1994 will have a great significance to Cambodian women farmers and women from the grassroots as hundreds of them from the 21 provinces in the Kingdom will travel to the capital city of Phnom Penh to show off their crafts and agricultural products from Nov 15-17.
Water Festival 1994 will be a great moment for women throughout the country to show their solidarity and to strengthen their network. Women from each province will come with a woven piece of silk, cotton, jute, grass and other natural fibers. These weavings will be sewn together in Phnom Penh to form a ribbon, hundreds of meters long, which will be a symbol of women's unity. This ribbon produced by Cambodian women will tour different parts of the world before it is taken to the Fourth UN Conference on Women to be held in Beijing in 1995 as part of the "Women Weaving the World Together" program.
Cambodian women are greatly encouraged to see measures taken by the Royal Government to develop the rural areas. A Ministry of Rural Development has been created recently. The Ministry is putting major efforts into developing a structure to guarantee full input from provincial committees whose task is to coordinate among different sectors and to oversee the full implementation of the provincial development plan. With the same objective of ensuring development in the rural areas, the State Secretariat for Women's Affairs has put forward a plan to develop women's centers in each province and district. Other ministries, government institutions, international organizations and NGOs are making major efforts for rural development as well, and agreements have been signed between the government and bilateral donors.
Cambodian women will continue to seize major occasions such as the Water Festival in order to raise public awareness about their roles in agriculture, the economy, and national reconstruction. The Cambodian women's network will continue to promote the participation of women from all sectors and all levels. Workshops to raise women's leadership skills, self-confidence, and awareness on specific issues will continue in the next two years with funds provided by the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau (AIDAB), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Embassy of Great Britain in Cambodia and the Embassy of the Netherlands in Bangkok. Including rural women in these training efforts in order to develop a foundation in the farming areas is essential to insure sustain ability of actions taken.
Additional funding to secure small scale development projects to improve the living conditions of women, to provide legal services and emergency shelter to women, to promote higher education for women, and to promote women's representation in the media will be sought. Issues such as trafficking of women and domestic violence, which are barriers preventing women from fully participating in national development, will be discussed with the government to find solutions and to create laws to protect women.
In accord with Article 49 of the Cambodian Constitution, which says that all Cambodian citizens, "have the duty to take part in the national reconstruction," Cambodian women see it as their responsibility to work to build the country. Therefore, Cambodian women see it as their right to participate in setting the ground for developing policies in national development.
Submitted by the Committee for the Protection of the Rights of Women and Children of Pounleu Khmer, a federation of Cambodian NGOs.
Regular columnist Boua Chanthou will return next edition.