Rany is a 39-year-old woman with three children, a 19-year old-son, Pouv, from her first marriage, and two children from her second marriage, five-year-old daughter Nouch and three year old son Nang. After more than ten years with her second husband, Rany has just started a new life. Despite the fact that she has only her two sets of clothes and some borrowed income, she has moved in with a woman friend in a one-bedroom shack on Phnom Penh's outskirts.
Rany has a high school education, a rare asset for the majority of Cambodian women. Having lost her first husband during the war, she married her second husband and began a ten-year journey through hell. In addition to raising the three children, Rany had to support her husband's drinking habit. This alone would not be such a burden for Rany as she saw herself as playing the role of the wife and mother. But six months ago Rany could no longer put up with another day of physical and mental abuse when her husband came home from his visit to the drinking place where most of the village men hang out.
For years neighbors and local officials had been reluctant to intervene as they considered domestic violence a family affair. Rany's cry for help was at last heard when she approached a community worker of a local NGO for temporary shelter. When physically safe, Rany filed for divorce; this was granted only after she paid the local court 80,000 riel and agreed to give up her three-year old son to her husband.
As millions of women worldwide are facing the same fate as Rany, preparations for the Fourth World Conference on Women are underway. From Sept 7-15, 1995, more than 30,000 women - from the NGO sector and from governmental organizations - will meet in Beijing to review and appraise Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women, focusing on equality, development, and peace, passed by the Third UN Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985.
The Forth World Conference on Women will have a significant meaning for Cambodian women. The newly-adopted Constitution is praised by the international community for giving women full equality with men in all areas of life. But although women head more than 25 percent of Cambodian families, compose 35 percent of the civil service, and do a major share of the work in the agriculture, business, industry and service sectors - implementing legislation and measures to insure the full protection and participation of women are far from reality. One indication of this is that only five of 120 members of the National Assembly are women.
Cambodian women are determined to take their part in reweaving the fabric of society and to share what they have learned from their experience born of long years of war, tragedy, and struggle. Despite many other urgent tasks, Cambodian women are chairing an international steering committee to organize a media event in Beijing: "Women Weaving the World Together." This event has been developed as a symbol of both the diversity and commonalty of women's lives and heritages throughout the world and as a symbol of the unity of women working together for the future. Women throughout the world are already weaving and organizing to prepare for this event The weavings will be sewn together in Beijing to produce a 20-km ribbon which will link the NGO Forum to the governments' meeting place.
Cambodian women are organizing a "kick-off" Women Weaving the World Together event in Cambodia during the Water Festival. On Nov 17, 1994, women from all over the country will bring weavings to Phnom Penh and join them together to make a banner. The banner will be marched through the streets as the inauguration of a three-day fair of women's exhibits, handicraft displays and sales, open forum for discussions, and poetry, singing and dancing. Women are also organizing events in some provinces.
Cambodian women from around the country already came together from Sept 26 to Oct 1 to train and plan for this celebration. They will return to the provinces to help organize local and national activities, raise awareness on women's issues, and strengthen the network of women.
The initiative in Cambodia is being undertaken by the Committee for the Protection of Women's and Children's Rights of Pounleu Khmer, a federation of Cambodian NGOs in collaboration with the State Secretariat for Women's Affairs.
This article was submitted by the committee. Regular columnist Boua Chan-tou is on holiday.