The Index: Women in Cambodia

5 09 2012

Here’s the latest article for my hometown newspaper, The Index.

Much of my work in Cambodia has consisted of working with women and girls. Last year, for example, I led a girls’ health club at the high school. More recently, I organized a girls’ leadership and empowerment camp. Currently, I’m working with a local nonprofit to field test lessons about gender-based violence, as well as managing a project that helps mothers identify ways to raise healthy kids.

These activities, initially borne out of a desire to address the inequalities and injustices faced by Cambodian women, have also helped deepen my own understanding of the complex situation for women here.

Some of the inequalities Cambodian women face don’t seem very different from those facing women in the United States: lower wages for the same work, underrepresentation in leadership positions, domestic violence, and rape. In addition, women here, like in many American households, bear the majority of childrearing responsibilities, are in charge of nearly all household chores and are expected to work outside of the home, as well.

Although some of these issues may seem familiar, some of the struggles Cambodian women confront are all but unimaginable for many in the US. Human trafficking is rampant, particularly near the Thai border and in tourist hotspots. Arranged marriages are still all too common in the countryside. Each year, about 2,000 Cambodian mothers die during childbirth. Plus, sweatshop workers are almost exclusively women, and although this is one of the only steady employment opportunities for unskilled female laborers, it often comes at a high risk due to the hazardous conditions of many factories.

Women’s social roles are also restricted to a degree that I have not seen in mainstream America. There’s an often-cited Khmer proverb that compares women to a piece of fine cloth and men to a piece of gold. The cloth, if stained, is impossible to clean. However, if a piece of gold becomes dirty, one can simply wipe the dirt off, making the gold shiny once again. In the context of modern-day Cambodia, this means that a woman’s reputation can be permanently destroyed for drinking a single beer in public, lighting a cigarette or even being in a room alone with a man.

These social norms depend heavily on geographic location, with big cities seeing more relaxed rules. However, even in the village where I’ve been living, a mere 60 kilometers from the country’s most touristed and, arguably, progressive city, these narrow ideas of gender prevail.

You don’t have to look hard to find exceptions though. There are countless women bucking traditional gender roles and attempting to address inequalities head-on. There’s Khim Pisey who, with just a high school education, has gone on to manage a drop-in center for local women. There is Somaly Mam, whose anti-trafficking work has made international headlines. There’s Jessica Lisha Srin, a Cambodian rapper who is paving a new road for women the music industry. And there are the high school students from my leadership camp who are now educating their community members about domestic violence.

Cambodia has a long way to go before women can enjoy the same privileges as men, but after spending some time here it becomes easy to see that although the challenges are innumerable, so, too, are the women who, one step at a time, are fighting for a better Cambodia.

Katie

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