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New laws urged to back women's rights

New laws urged to back women's rights

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

process.

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

marriage.

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."

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