Over the past three decades three World Conferences on Women were convened to address
issues of gender equality, development and peace. Over that same period, as a result
of war, ideology and politics, Cambodian women have seen little equality, marginal
development and no peace. For the majority of Cambodian women life has been a daily
struggle riddled with the loss of husbands, children and often society around them.
In this, Cambodian men have fared little better.
As women and men the world over were preparing for the Fourth World Conference on
Women which took place in Beijing this September, hundreds of thousands of Cambodian
women were still pulling themselves out of poverty, domestic violence and neglect.
This time however Cambodian women merged with global movements for action and visions
of change as the one hundred and twenty strong Cambodian women’s delegation to Beijing
not only brought Cambodia back to this important international forum but also played
a valuable role in both the preparations and events.
The road to Beijing was initially opened for the Cambodian women’s movement with
the historic democratic elections of 1993 when the country was given a choice for
a new beginning. A small nucleus of women representing teachers, students, development
workers and prominent women organized public debates to challenge each political
party on issues of gender and bring social development to the campaign platforms.
Around the country women represented over half of the voting electorate and maintained
that percentage in the final vote despite threats of disruption and violence.
During the drafting of the Constitution, Cambodian women kept themselves informed,
organized more debates and merged with the Dhammayietra movement to ensure that gender
equality, dignity for women and peace were enshrined in the Constitution. Once promulgated,
the constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia received wide praise for being among
the most liberal and fair to women. The silent majority was gaining a voice.
By the end of 1993 strong, additional women leaders, including many from grassroots
level, had joined the Cambodian women’s agenda for change and began forming their
own committees, associations and NGOs. In early 1994, first information about the
Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing reached Cambodia. A few women from the
NGO movement were invited by the Secretariat of Women’s Affairs to contribute to
the preparation of the first Country Report on Women; a document required from all
members of the UN for the Conference. This in itself represented the first time an
official Cambodian government report included substantial contributions from NGOs.
The 18-month long preparation for Beijing was a defining moment for the Cambodian
women’s movement. To prepare policies and strategies for change, meetings, workshops
and seminars were organized. The focus turned from demands for women’s rights to
analyzing gender development policies of the government and the bilateral and multilateral
donors. Improved research provided better design. At the State Secretariat for Women’s
Affairs, technical adviser Chantou Boua compiled updated statistics that along with
other local women’s studies revealed serious gender disparities. In a country where
women represent well over half of the population:
- Women represent 65-70 percent of the rural, agricultural work force
- 40 percent of young girls never start school
- 20 percent complete secondary school
- 12.6 percent women attend school of medicine
- 4.6 percent women attend the Agricultural Institute of Chamcar Daung
- Women represent 5.8 percent of the National Assembly
- Women represent 0 percent of provincial and district authorities
A 1994 study on domestic violence, funded by the Asia Foundation, revealed that
violence in the family occurs at all levels of Cambodian society and women and children
are almost always the main victims. As the report further clarifies, “the Khmer
Rouge experience, decades of war, pervasive violence, the availability of weapons
and inadequate dispute resolution mechanisms appear to greatly increase the severity
of the violence.” Separate seminars on prostitution, Aids and land mines outlined
additional issues of victimization and called for further action.
Slowly the voice of women began to be heard and the agenda focused. As the date of
the Beijing conference neared, further training and organized action from around
the country brought the weight of numbers and commitment to Cambodia’s preparations
and to the Conference delegation. To demonstrate the Royal Government’s highest considerations,
His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk Varman, Her Majesty Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk
and Madam Hun Sen received and blessed the delegation at the Royal Palace. By consensus,
the First Lady, Princess Norodom Marie Ranariddh, was chosen to lead the delegation.
Finally, a week before departure to the Beijing Conference, Samdech Preah Ream Princess
Bopha Devi presided over a grand send-off at the Wat Phnom Pagoda.
The 115-strong Cambodian women’s delegation to the Beijing Conference, from rural
and urban society and from Government and NGO perspectives, departed from Phnom Penh
at the end of August 1995 both well prepared and widely blessed. The strength of
heart quickly proved necessary as the small delegation was suddenly merged with 30,000
women from across the world, all of whom struggled with security police and logistics
and most of whom remained strong in spirit and unity throughout the two weeks. While
eager to absorb and learn from the experience of women from across the global community,
the Cambodian delegation took great pride in being able to demonstrate the progress
made by their own young women’s movement. Cambodia’s contributions to the Beijing
- Organizing panel discussions on Daughters of War – The Cambodian Story and Amara
- A Cambodian Women’s Grassroots Movement.
- Showing video tapes produced by Cambodian women on land mines, domestic violence
- Hosting the Cambodian Women’s Hour with their Asia-Pacific sisters in the Friendship
- The coordination of the global project, Women Weaving the World, which after
a year of hard work resulted in the production of 2,000 meters of weaving made bywomen from 120 countries all brought to Beijing, sewed together and prominently displayed.Representing women’s strength, diversity and solidarity, the Friendship Ribbon wasdraped for a day on top of the Great Wall of China. A small piece, with a bordersewn by Her Royal Highness Norodom Marie Ranariddh, was delivered through five hoursof rain and endless security details to Ms Hillary Rodham Clinton, the First Ladyof the United States.
On the second day of the conference, Cambodia was honored with distinction as
being one of five countries recognized for having made the most outstanding concrete
commitments for the advancement of women. These commitments include the future establishment
of the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, to be led by a woman, the introduction of the
Women’s Code and legislation to deal with trafficking and exploitation of women and
In large measure, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing marked the arrival
of the women’s movement as a mature and dedicated force for social action and holistic
The Platform for Action, the document signed at the Conference by the nations of
the world including Cambodia, has identified 12 critical areas of concern for equality,
development and peace. Cambodia will have to set priorities on action to be taken
over the next five to 10 years. For the Conference to have true and solid impact
on the life of Cambodian women, the active participation of various actors of civil
society need to be nurtured and supported. Gender issues must be mainstreamed in
all national policies and programs. For livelihoods to be sustainable, the ecological
and economic context of such livelihoods must be stabilized. Such a broad vision
will consider the equalization of resources and power – in other words, to democratization,
and to the building and strengthening of an autonomous civil society where women
would be equal partners. This will be an authentic collective task which is based
on equal rights of all – women, men, children and adults, poor and rich, indigenous
communities and business organizations – to look towards sustainable livelihoods
that are life-enhancing, meaningful and dignified.
So far the Government has evinced interest to work towards development of women.
Its achievements and the socio-economic progress of Cambodian women will be discernible
when the nation goes for polls in 1998. Now is the time for women within and outside
of government to demonstrate common cause for the socio-economic development of women
and the families and the quality of life they envision.
In 1993, women merely voted. In 1998, they will vote for a government that has committed
itself to the realization of gender justice and fairness.
- Sochua Mu Leiper is an Advisor on Women’s Affairs to the First Prime Minister.