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UN’s Kusuma eyes gains, battles ahead for Cambodian women

UN Women country director Wenny Kusuma talks to the Post from her office in Phnom Penh earlier this week
UN Women country director Wenny Kusuma talks to the Post from her office in Phnom Penh earlier this week. Hong Menea

UN’s Kusuma eyes gains, battles ahead for Cambodian women

As countries across the world mark the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence and assess progress made on equality ahead of the 20th anniversary next year of a landmark declaration on women’s rights, the Post’s Alice Cuddy sat down with UN Women country director Wenny Kusuma this week to discuss the big issues facing women in modern-day Cambodia.

What have been the major advances in Cambodia on women’s rights since the Beijing Declaration?
One of the things that Beijing did was call for the establishment of machinery in the government, so we have the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and we also have the CNCW [Cambodian National Council for Women]. We also have a legal framework where we have both laws and policies to protect and promote the standing of women. Cambodia has recently completed its second national action plan to prevent violence against women and children, and that is going before the Council of Ministers to be presided over on December 5.

What role did Cambodia take at the Beijing +20 regional review in Bangkok last week?
The Cambodian delegation was a strong voice on behalf of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. It was a proud experience to be watching the delegation say to the world, “It is all of us who deserve equality”.

UN Women has said that violence against women is “one of the most widespread violations of human rights” in Cambodia. What data are there to support this?
There was a joint UN program that did a study [last year] focusing on the prevalence of violence against women based on self-reports by perpetrators. One in five Cambodian young men reported to have engaged in rape; that is an amazingly wide and deep problem. Subsequently, just this year, UNICEF released prevalence data on violence against children. Thirdly, UN Women with WHO [the World Health Organisation] will release prevalence data on violence against women from the victim’s perspective. To have this much data by the end of three years is frankly unheard of.

How does violence against women in Cambodia differ from other countries?
In Cambodia there is a social, almost entertainment dimension, where often times there is a peer scenario with a cohort of perpetrators. Gang rape seems to be more of an issue here, and because it’s a group scenario, some have referred to it very darkly as a “national sport”. There have been studies on why; one thought is that it is historically related to the transition to adulthood in terms of it being a ritual by which boys passed into men. That is a dimension of cultural norms that we say Cambodians have the power to change.

Cambodia has failed to meet the Millennium Development Goal of 30 per cent female representation in the National Assembly by 2015, with just 20 per cent in the last election. How important is it that women take a more central political role?
For women to be represented and to be able to self-represent their concerns, their presence in the political sphere is really important. Generally speaking, women are involved, but if you take a look, it’s akin to the economy, where women are involved in primarily informal roles, so a lot of the time they’re the people behind the scenes, they’re the informal actors. Women need to be supported to move into formal roles in both sectors.

What are you doing to support women being trafficked and sold as brides in China or those being abused and exploited as maids in Malaysia?
People will move whether it’s legal or not and what we are saying is that it should be regulated so that the conditions with which movement happens can be ensured towards greater safety. We are working with sending countries and transit and receiving countries not only to support changes in terms of the legal framework but also with such things as education and services to the women themselves. One very clear step would be for Cambodia to ratify the convention on the rights of migrant workers.

What are UN Women’s goals for 2015?
We are here to absolutely support Cambodia as a country that has manifested deep commitment towards ending violence against women. Their second national action plan is just about to be passed; since Beijing, we’ve formulated good policy, this new plan has a focus on prevention. With new political negotiations having been under way [and] the agreement for the National Assembly, our view to working with the host government has now extended. We have always worked with the executive branch; we are now expanding to the legislative branch and the judiciary as well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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