From prisons to the pavements of Phnom Penh, women had a strong message for the Cambodian government on International Womens’ Day: Stop the violence and stop the discrimination.
Four hundred Boeung Kak lake and Borei Keila evictees marched through Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district with placards emblazoned with images of eviction violence used against their communities by authorities.
“We, the residents of Boeung Kak and Borei Keila, request the local authority and company owners to stop evicting us and stop using violence against women,” villager representative Tep Vanny said.
However, the womens’ march against police brutality was cut short by a 100-strong force of military and national police, who ejected the villagers from the streets due to their impact on traffic congestion.
In Tuol Kork district, along railway tracks that wind through a slum, a group of 30 university students, dressed in sashes and skirts made from newspaper articles of domestic abuse, carried signs and chanted anti-domestic abuse slogans.
“There are a lot of policies and legal rights to protect women, but the number of domestic violence cases decreases too slowly, and in 2011 and 2012, there have been many cases of violence against female demonstrators,” said Hem Nareth of Empowering Youths in Cambodia.
“There is no respect,” she added.
Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek put the number of women experiencing domestic violence at at least 25 per cent and said that “more than 80 per cent of cases” are believed to go unreported due to reasons including tradition, shame and fear of public reaction.
“Cambodia is still an agrarian society, where the tradition of male supremacy is at the core of common thinking,” Pung Chhiv Kek said yesterday.
“A key factor [in slow and small improvement to women’s rights] is a very hesitant political will of the male elites to improve the situation,” Pung Chhiv Kek added.
The Kingdom’s theme for International Women’s Day was “my eminent mother”, a theme many women’s rights workers saw as fitting in the context of problems plaguing rural mothers and daughters, such as sexual violence, discrimination and health disadvantages
Ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Cheam Yeap said that 30 per cent of CPP candidates in the upcoming June 3 commune elections will be women, adding that all political parties will be pushing women candidates.
“It is our CPP policy to take care of women, both rural and in the city,” Cheam Yeap said.
Gender and Development for Cambodia executive director Ros Sopheap pointed out that while more women are entering government positions, they are rarely decision-makers.
“This year is the year to achieve our millennium development goal [of 30 per cent] for elected women,” Ros Sopheap pointed out.
Rights NGO Licadho delivered care packages to 500 female prisoners detained at Prey Sar yesterday to mark the day. President Pung Chhiv Kek encouraged the women detainees to look at the facility as one for correction, not punishment.
“We are born equal and the same, the only difference is if we are born male or female,” Pung Chhiv Kek told the prisoners. “Women can do everything the same as men if they are given the opportunity.”
While celebrations of International Women’s Day were numerous and vibrant in Phnom Penh, the majority of Cambodia’s women, those living in rural areas, are unlikely to see any improvement to their status until there is a change of political will, observers said.
The WHO yesterday stressed the UN’s Women’s Day theme of “Empower rural women: end hunger and poverty” by emphasising the dire situation of Cambodia’s rural population.
Only 39 per cent of births in rural areas are attended by skilled personnel, the WHO said, adding that Cambodia has one of the highest adolescent fertility rates in the West Pacific, a fact complicated by high percentages of stunted growth and anaemia.
Che Katz, program director at Marie Stopes International Cambodia, told the Post by email that while access to family planning services in Cambodia is a high-profile government initiative, modern contraceptive prevalence is only 35 per cent, compared to upwards of 70 per cent in Vietnam and Thailand.
“If family planning was more accessible to these women, then we could prevent many unnecessary abortions in Cambodia,” Katz said.
“There are also many traditional family planning beliefs [and] cultural barriers, along with myths and misconceptions about modern family planning,” Katz said, adding that men need to actively engage in family planning decisions.
The UN, WFP, CCHR and Australian Embassy each announced new projects to support women’s rights yesterday; however, a report released by Adhoc last week pointed out that there are lots of efforts, but few results in improving the situation of women and children’s rights in Cambodia.
“The Royal Government of Cambodia has made significant efforts … however, according to Adhoc’s research and observation, there has been little improvement in the situation in 2011,” the report states, adding that what is needed most is a large-scale attitude change toward women’s rights from men and women alike. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY, CASSANDRA YEAP, KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA