Cambodian Women and Barriers to Social Participation
"Women hold more than half of the sky" -- (Chinese Saying)
But why women are the ones who suffer the greatest discriminations and pains?
Women account for more than fifty percent of the overall Cambodian population; furthermore, all work related to society, culture, politics, economics, humanity, etc., won't attain great achievement, unless women are allowed to take part. Since antiquity, Cambodia was a women-headed state (story of male/female hill, as a unique example), which means women held important roles in leadership in almost all fields. In contrast, why the number of women today, participated in society-related especially in the decision-making work, has ominously diminished, compared to men's, in today's Cambodia?
In retrospect traditionally, Cambodian women were edified to bear in mind the quality of "Khmerness"; virtue, gentleness, unconditional gratitude to parents, seriousness, loyalty... etc. Due to all of these cultural constraints, Cambodian women had to follow them without knowing any original meanings. I am not criticizing these Cambodia's spirits that has, thousands of years, nicknamed Cambodia "The Golden territory," but I want our teachers/professors/students to explain and think deeper about these values; when "calmness is gold," and when "to venture expression for better tomorrow." Too many women are being negatively tolerant to their husbands' violence, unsafe sex, physical exploitations, etc. These women don't venture to liberate themselves from these exploitations, because they think they would destroy the well-beings, and fames of the families and themselves.
Questioned by Phnom Penh Post, "What are the pressing issues affecting women in Cambodia now" in June 7 - 20, 2002, Her Excellency Mu Sochua, Minister for Women's and Veteran's Affairs answered, "Society has to change its mentality. A woman's role is not just about raising children, being a good mother, the mother of the universe. The man's role is also about being the father of the universe. For the woman it is about making safe choices for herself and not letting anyone else make those choices. Does she have a chance to say: 'No, that is not the man I want to marry' or 'I want to stay in school'? If those choices are open to men they should also be open to women. It is the only way for long-term development in Cambodia. Look at garment factory workers, the majority of whom are women. They don't have choices and in the next five years if they stay in the same position without anyone to help them increase their capacity, education and skills they will be kicked out and replaced and left on their own." Such a social mentality may probably the most appropriate answer to "why women almost always lag behind men in social participation?"
Girls are thought as more grateful, caring to parents than boys, so it is boy's absolute opportunity to pursue education, if the schools are too far away from home or if the family can support only one child's education.
Stereotype of Cambodian Literature
In teaching Cambodian literature, most stories narrate about main male characters as the brave, intelligent, creative, loyal men, and female main characters are usually excellent housewives. This is one of the elements that have extremely discouraged the Cambodian women, and step by step have inserted into Cambodian women's mentality. Story is one of the most effective means to psychological education for Cambodian people, so turning Cambodian stories into better gender balance would dramatically contribute to gender equity.
Besides this, in the past Cambodia, most or all of education centers were located in the pagodas, and most of the students were male, so female students were strongly discouraged by the majority of the male students.
What Can Be Done?
As stated previously, gender inequality has been in children's mind since they are at the very young age. So girls must be given equal treatment and opportunities from the very beginning, as stated by World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children.
Gender discrimination was instigated in the family, so there should be programs to explain the parents or heads of the families the values of education to girls, what would affect the girls' future, and the nation as the whole.
Turning the drafted law related to women's protection into reality. As Mu Sochua stated, "saying 'yes I understand I have rights' is not enough." She continued: "But how are women going to use them when they have fewer choices than boys and less chance to stay through school all the way to tertiary level?"
Families and government should try their utmost to alleviate discrimination in the field of education such as:
- schools, specially programs and training programs open only to boys and men;
- higher paid, higher status teaching positions open only to male educators;
- testing methods biased in favor of boys (e.g,. questions that reflect the interest and vocabulary of most boys).
And remove discrimination against women in all two levels:
- At work and in the community
- At work where they are exploited more than men and given unskilled jobs or lower wages than men.
Imagine if you were a woman, living in Cambodia: What would be your most pressing difficulties, and what would be your highest desires? How would you handle those hardships?
Lay Vicheka (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a student of law in Cambodian University in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.