B y all accounts, the new Cambodian constitution is
among the most progressive in the world in addressing women's concerns. Some of
its provisions, like 'house work is equal to outdoor work' (Article 36) and 'men
and women are equal in all fields, especially in marriage and family' (Article
45) testify to the success of women's advocacy efforts during the drafting
But legal experts say the more important task is to ensure that
new laws will live up to the same standards.
"The constitution is a very
forward-looking document," says V.S. Rekha, UNIFEM's legal consultant at the
Secretariat of State for Women's Affairs. "But everything now depends on how the
new laws implement its principles."
NGO advocates and legal experts agree
that Cambodian women themselves rate domestic violence, sexual exploitation and
polygamy as their most pressing concerns.
"Any new criminal law should
define and penalize these three acts as crimes, and also make at least child
prostitution and trafficking illegal," says Brigitte Sonnois, Women in
Development Project officer at UNICEF.
Observers also point out that
there is often a wide discrepancy between laws and practice. Though earlier laws
stipulated, for example, that all family property is jointly owned and cannot be
disposed of without the consent of the spouse, women have frequently complained
that they have little control over property.
"Family laws should ensure
that women get a fair share of family property during divorce and if her husband
dies intestate," says Rekha.
Sonnois also stresses the importance of
ensuring enough alimony and child-support payments, especially because polygamy
and desertion are common, and men often have several children from each
Another common concern is the labor law, especially since
women account for 74 per cent of all agricultural labor and nearly 70 per cent
of the labor force in all factories owned or rented by the Ministry of Industry.
But such figures often mask the discrimination that exists. For example,
women not only occupy lower positions in industrial and services sectors, they
also constitute only 10 per cent of the workforce in industries requiring
greater skills or strength.
Even in rural areas, statistics show that
ploughing, a traditionally 'male' job, pays 1000 riels a day while
transplanting, traditionally done by women, pays only 300 riels. A sort of farm
labor exchange is also practiced, whereby a widow who is helped on her fields by
other men for one day usually has to perform two days' labor for them in return.
Though there are often wide gaps between policy and practice, experts
agree that Cambodian women's' important economic role will soon extend to
equally decisive roles in public affairs. They see the constitution as a sign
that the enormous contribution of Cambodian women is being recognized.
"The most obvious result of the constitution's recognition of women's
work at home is that housework will at least be on all official statistics as
women's contribution to the economy,"says Sonnois.
She added: "That is an
important first step."