Cambodia’s women are fighting back
In Cambodia, you don’t have to go very far to realise this is not a great place for women’s rights. I was travelling from Phnom Penh to Kampot, a small village on the coast, in June last year, on a coach full of Khmer people going home for the weekend. The TV that every coach came with was on loud, blaring out a range of saccharine Khmer pop songs, in which young people sing about their romantic relationships. After a bit of idle watching, I realised there was a common theme to the videos. The teenagers were young and pretty, revelling in Phnom Penh’s growing economy. But that wasn’t it. In 90% of the videos, the young, beautiful girl seconds previously celebrating her happy relationship with a handsome young man, ended up killing herself in a surprisingly detailed way, because of abandonment by her boy. Girl after girl threw herself off buildings, into swimming pools or in front of cars, all for love.
It’s not something we’d see in music videos in the UK, but it fits in alarmingly well with a country still struggling to throw off the human rights abuses of the recent past. In Cambodia, women struggle with unfair marriage laws, violent spouses and sex trafficking. It’s a grim picture. A report by Cambodia charity CAMBOW (Cambodian Committee of Women) demonstrates how Cambodian laws are unfair and discriminatory towards women, and in marriage particularly women find it difficult to extract themselves from often abusive relationships. The Law on Marriage and Family (LMF) passed in 1989 was supposed to promote equality in marriage, but it has severe limitations due to misunderstandings and old fashioned attitudes.
In a case study in the CAMBOW report, a woman called Naren tells her story. After her marriage, her husband started visiting a mistress in the neighbouring town. She says, ‘For the sake of our children I tried to be very patient with him. He would often force me to have sex with him and he always shouted at me and complained that I was a bad wife. The abuse was particularly bad after he came back from his mistress’ After several years of this treatment, Naren tried to get a divorce, only to be fobbed off by village and commune chiefs in ‘reconciliation’ sessions. The report details the numerous attempts at trying to get a divorce, which proved very difficult: ‘My husband was very angry when he found out that I filed for divorce and at the court reconciliation session I was very scared to see my husband…The court judge did not listen to me and just urged me to reconcile with my husband. The court clerk even said to me “do not worry, all men are like that”.
Eventually Naren did get a divorce, but her husband refused to recognise it and to pay her money to support herself and her children. She managed to overcome this, with the help of an NGO who provided her with somewhere to live. NGOs are doing essential work in places like this, to help women. Cambodian NGO the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center has a similar role. They protect women damaged by domestic abuse by providing them with legal assistance and shelter while they get themselves back on their feet. More significantly, perhaps, they also run a prevention programme, running anger management courses for men and scholarships for women’s education.
Educational programmes help solve the problem that women are often second class citizens, education reserved for boys. Case studies on the Crisis Center website talk of girls forced to give up school to look after younger children or to work to support the family. The Crisis Center provides food to allow girls to keep up their education; they also provide valuable emotional support.
The head of the Crisis Center, in an interview with Asia Monitor Research Center, says ‘CWCC’s work often brings us into cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Police and Ministry of Social Affairs. Together with them, we arrange safe shelter, conduct monitoring, and conduct peer trainings. We also facilitate women’s integration back into communities.’
Another NGO, Khemara, provides leadership courses for women run by other women, which helps them develop into potential community leaders of the future – essential if they are going to offer a reasonable alternative to a man. Regular flippant references to the ‘sisterhood’ in the West have undermined this sort of woman to woman development, but it’s often the only way that women are allowed to learn, or trust anyone to teach them. Tiny community based programmes, like the ones run by these two NGOs, are the answer to a nationwide problem.
It’s a huge task, battling with years of attitudes set in stone. But little by little, progress is genuinely being made. If women know there is someone there, impartially on their side, they will be able to take their husbands to anger management, to continue their education, or even, in the right circumstances, to get a divorce. Anything is possible. There is a genuinely positive feeling in Cambodia that the worst is over, that women are beginning to stand equally with men. Now if they could only get the music video producers to understand that as well.