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Twenty years after the Fourth World Conference on Women

Senior member of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue party Mu Sochua greets supporters during a demonstration at Democracy Park in Phnom Penh
Senior member of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue party Mu Sochua greets supporters during a demonstration at Democracy Park in Phnom Penh on September 17, 2013. AFP

Twenty years after the Fourth World Conference on Women

As we celebrate International Women’s Day this March 8, we reflect on the accomplishments of the past 20 years and for this we need to revisit the Beijing Platform for Action of 1995 in which member states pledged to protect, to promote and to defend women’s rights as human rights; reaffirm the human rights of women as inalienable, integral and an indivisible part of universal human rights.

The Beijing Platform for Action contains an agenda for women’s empowerment. It aims at “removing all the obstacles to women’s active participation in all spheres of public and private life through an equal share in economic, social, political decision-making and that broad-based and sustainable economic growth is necessary to sustain social development and social justice”.

Cambodian women have come a long way since the Beijing Conference: the country’s improvement in infrastructure, with the near universal access to mobile phones among all youth – 96 per cent according to UNDP 2014 report.

The use of social media by the 3.8 million users and improved access to information are some of the significant factors informing the­­ emancipation of Cambodian women in the past 20 years. Although women in the rural areas struggle with their low wages as garment factory workers, close to half a million of these young women have learned to live independently and make decisions that have significant impact on their lives. At the National Assembly the figure of women elected remains around 20 per cent in the past decade. This figure is among the highest in the region.

Young women’s demonstration of their active citizenship was highly visible during the pre- and post-2013 electoral elections, a period that shook the entire nation with the movement for phdo or change. In those months, close to one million protesters, a majority of whom were women, walked the city streets with clear demands to end social and economic injustice. Women were on front and centre stage of each rally.

Cambodian Sorn Seavmey
Cambodian Sorn Seavmey, shows her gold medal she won in the women’s 73kg Taekwondo at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon. Seavmey is one of Cambodia’s most prominent female icons in recent memory. AFP

Economic growth in Cambodia in the past decades has, in so many ways changed Cambodian women. However, these changes have come at a very high cost for women. The unequal and unsustainable economic growth that has brought about change in our society has also trapped many women in a life cycle of poverty, violence and insecurity. The main areas of concern included in the Beijing Platform of Action: education, health, economic empowerment, and violence against women remain areas where the government has failed the girl child, the female adolescent and the adult women of Cambodia. The culture of patronage, the top-down approach and a prolonged one-party system has led to marginalisation, discrimination, intimidation and fear. Impunity, corruption and gender-based violence reduce the representation and voices of women. When half the population continues to live in fear and is silenced, the society and the state systems need some serious inspections.

In the area of education, the real challenge is not the rate of enrollment of girls but of their full completion of the state mandated nine years. The key drop out rate of 20 per cent at grade 7, 21 per cent at grade 9 and 15 per cent at grade 12 are figures of grave concern for the formal education of our female students. Furthermore, the low quality of education has not prepared our female youth for meaningful employment. The results of the shortfalls in the education system are our current high rate of unemployment, our unskilled labour, working conditions that expose our women to exploitation, and the high rate of migration for employment with little or no protection from the state.

The increase in the 2015 national budget for education can barely pay for the much needed salary increase for teachers. The much needed reforms envisioned by the minister of education will not be fulfilled unless a reduction in non-economic sectors is made to allow for at least 20 per cent investment increase in the education sector in the years to come.

Government investment in pre-natal care in the past 20 years, with the increase of trained birth attendants and better equipped health centres, have benefitted women. The maternal mortality rate at 250 per 100,000 live births has dropped drastically by two-thirds but it remains a leading cause of women’s deaths in Cambodia. Hospital fees, poor quality of services and corruption in the health system victimise the poor and women bear the heaviest consequences. Total reforms in the health sector that will encompass the principles of public health to include hospital management, prevention and the promotion of health with informed choices are much needed. Incentives such as scholarships, dormitories and drastic reduction of school fees for female students need to be created and strictly enforced for the next decade to remedy the gender imbalance in hospital staffs and medical doctors trained in women’s health. Public health care services are a matter of right and not of privilege. The people must have trust in the health system.

The government’s economic concession policy that has affected close to 400,000 people since 2003 has taken a heavy toll on women and children. Entire families are destroyed when their land is grabbed and when forced evictions are protected by police forces. Entire communities are sometimes uprooted. This form of violence against women in the past decade is “justified” by the state as part of development and progress. In cases of farm land, farmers are sometimes forced to accept work on their land after it has been transformed into a plantation. Women and children are not spared from this harsh reality.

According to the 2013 Partners For Prevention study, “35 per cent of ever-partnered men had used physical or sexual violence against an intimate partner”. The Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) concludes in its report that Cambodia has seen “limited progress in the prevention and elimination of violence against women”. Why is that? Violence against women is not condemned by society. Women sold to the sex trade are seen by society as “rotten women” and social re-integration requires much concerted effort. Cambodian women are lured by those in the sex trade and sold as bribes in China and Taiwan. The victims are often at times made to feel shame and forced to accept financial compensation while the perpetrators remain free to repeat the same crimes. Financial dependence on men and the fear of society’s heavy judgment keep victims of domestic violence silent. The state itself commits violence against women who join public protests. Hired security guards and military police well equipped with batons, shields, weapons and tear gas use violent measures to ensure “social order”. Women, children and even the elderly do not escape this draconian conduct by state forces. And none of the complaints filed by the victims has ever been examined by the courts!

There must be a culture of zero tolerance for all forms of violence against women. Women must be recruited in the police force and trained to handle cases of violence against women. The current low number of women in the field of law can be addressed with scholarships, dormitories, courses on gender justice. A Family Court should be considered as an important part of judicial reform. To put an end to the cycle of violence against women requires a high level of political will to defend women’s rights as human rights. Only when there is justice can we end violence.

As we celebrate the 104th anniversary of the struggle of women for rights, equality, freedom and peace, and as we measure progress for women 20 years after the Beijing Platform for Action, we must recognise the sacrifices our women make to become Neary Rattanak or precious gems. Let us move forward with a commitment from the entire nation for true gender justice and for a full realisation of women’s rights.

Mu Sochua is a member of parliament for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. Sochua is also in charge of Women, Children and Migrant Workers at the Office of the Minority Leader.


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