International Women’s Day – Developments in Former Years in Cambodia – Wednesday, 9.3.2011

The Mirror, Vol. 15, No. 707

Since a number of years, The Mirror highlighted the International Women’s Day by collecting special information, also trying to put this day in Cambodia into an international or historical context – among others linking some early women’s textile workers industrial action in 1836 in the USA, in Lowell, Massachusetts – with one of the largest Cambodian-American communities nowadays – to the fact that Cambodian women textile workers are now the most important section of society earning foreign exchange for the country. As some of the former text had received quite some interest, we repeat “clickable” reference here:

I recently found a text looking at the situation of women during the time of the People’s Republic of Cambodia – after 1979, after the Khmer Rouge regime – and the changes setting in since the UNTAC time 1992/93 in the Kingdom of Cambodia. I quote from Cambodia: A Political Survey, by Michael Vickery (published by Editions Funan, Phnom Penh 2007), pages 149-155. Much of the descriptions and documented evidences are dated and written in 1996 and before [these sections are marked here with “quote marks”] allow an interesting view at the changes which set it since the 22 months of UNTAC time 1992/1993.

And obviously, some of these changes have their negative influence until today.

Effects of the UN-Intervention

(Only the section related to the situation of women and children is quoted here – shortened, [annotations added])

“Another of the latest mantras (1996) of a certain vocal section of the NGO and international organization community in the last few years is the situation of women and children, which they tend to see as the effect of a malevolent government, rather than proceeding from objective economic and political changes of recent years.

“Because of the demographic changes of the DK years [DK = officially called "Democratic Kampuchea" = the Khmer Rouge regime, 1975 - 1979], that is the heavy death toll, above normal, particularly among men, Cambodia was left in 1979 when the PRK was formed [PRK = "People's Republic of Kampuchea" established 10 January 1979 after toppling the Khmer Rouge regime; - "State of Cambodia" = SOC, established 1 May 1989; - Kingdom of Cambodia established 24 September 1993] with an excess of women. This has been variously estimated from a high of 60% to a more accurate figure of 52.2% in the latest statistical study (Royal Government of Cambodia, Ministry of Planning, National Institute of Statistics, “Report on the Socio-Economic Survey of Cambodia 1993/94″, Phnom Penh, 1995). Whatever the statistical truth, many more households have been headed by women than was usual in pre-war Cambodia. This was not entirely the result of the disappearance of males during DK, but also of the weakening of the old rural society. It has been found that among the squatter communities in Phnom Penh, women are often the actual heads of households, even when living with a husband; and it is likely that many rural households are headed by women because husbands spend long periods elsewhere, usually in urban areas, earning extra income. Probably many military households are also headed, in fact, by the wives.

“Regardless of ideology, which being socialist instead of gender equality, the PRK was forced to give more attention to women because of need for their labor. There were more kindergartens and day care centers, including at factories, than before 1975 or since 1991; and the number of preschoolers declined from 689 in 1985/86 to 203 in 1993/94 (Edward B. Fiske, “Using Both Hands, Women and Education in Cambodia, Manila, Asian Development Bank, 1995, page 32). In rural areas the agricultural ‘Solidarity Groups’ working on state owned land gave some protection to poor and widowed women, whose situation has declined since the introduction of free-market policies and land privatization after 1989.

“Besides this, the PRK offered more women opportunities to assume more responsible positions in political, administrative, and economic affairs than had been possible in pre-war Cambodia. There were a number of women in ministerial positions, and as province and district chiefs, where there had been none before, and at lower levels far more women than had been customary, over one third of the lower-level civil service positions. In industry, where there had already been many women workers in the 1960s, they were moving into management positions under the PRK. Now, in the formation of new village level organizations foreign NGO workers have noted that women who were formed in PRK Women’s Associations, or who were KR cadre in 1975 – 1979, are the most articulate, confident and active.”

One statistic, which enemies of the Cambodian government used to allegedly prove that women are marginalized, is the number of women members of Parliament, only seven out of one hundred twenty, under 6% after 1993. This may not look good compared to Scandinavia, but it was not out of line with Thailand (24/393, or 6.1% women) or Malaysia (15/190 for 7.8%). What the critics should be looking at is the comparison with pre-UNTAC PRK Cambodia, where 21 of 117 members of Parliament, 17.9%, were women, and where all aspects of health and education, in particular affecting women and children, were superior to what resulted in 1993 from the façade of democracy introduced at the price of 2 billion dollars by UNTAC.

Compared with the prominence of women in prestigious positions under the PRK/SOC, it was notable that there was no female minister in the new Royal Government formed in 1993 after the election. It was not relevant, as some commented, that under the PRK there had not been a ministry of women’s affairs. There had been a powerful women’s organization with functioned as a ministry. Even the State Secretariat for Women’s Affairs, one of the positions given to FUNCINPEC, was headed by one of the men returned from long exile in the West.

That anomaly was rectified in 1996 when Ms. Mu Sochua, a Khmer American, who had returned to Cambodia before the 1993 election after six years working in the refugee camps on the Thai border, joined FUNCINPEC, and became an advisor on women’s affairs to Ranariddh, who appointed her as minister of women’s affairs. Ms. Sochua, who had left Cambodia as a teenager before 1975, and had grown up in the US, began to work in the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodia border in 1980 where she learned Cambodia politics in the anti-Phnom Penh milieus predominant there…

Most sources agree that domestic violence has increased with the leap into a free market economy and the destruction of the PRK social safety net after 1989. In the 150 pages of Judy Ledgerwood’s “Analysis of the Situation of Women in Cambodia” in 1992 (Judy Ledgerwood, Analysis of the Situation of Women in Cambodia. Research of Women in Khmer Society. UNICEF; Phnom Penh [mimeo], 1992) there is no evocation of domestic violence as a particular problem, but in late 1995 concerned foreign NGO workers were incensed that after six months of research in Phnom Penh (population of over half of a million) and three provinces (another million or so), one group of investigators had managed to discover 50 cases of battered wives. Unfortunately, rather than seeing this in relation to Cambodia’s post-socialist economic and social collapse, they preferred to relate it to the allegedly inherent male chauvinism of Cambodian society.

Little has changed since the above was written in 1996. It would seem that the very real problems of Cambodia in the areas of welfare, human rights, corruption, and a precarious democracy are directly related to the way in which Cambodia was forced too rapidly into political and economic change for which the country and its leaders were not prepared, and instead of sympathetic help from an international community pretending horror at the DK debacle from which Cambodia had emerged in 1979, most foreign inputs were to punish Cambodia for not immediately becoming a Sweden of Southeast Asia.

The alleviation of all of the specific Cambodian problems requires not more neo-liberalism, but state intervention in the interest of social justice and to maintain basic living standards. There was a good beginning under the PRK, when the state controlled the major economic sectors. Foreign institutions genuinely concerned with Cambodian development, rather than just carping about corruption, lack of political pluralism, and free market virtues, should be helping Cambodia strengthen state institutions to enforce mobilization of domestic resources and foreign aid into channels of benefit to the entire society. Instead of focusing only on those articles of the constitution which define democratic formalism, they might pay attention to the other articles of the constitution which require the state to maintain education, culture and social welfare.

For the Cambodian government to undertake the reforms demanded by their critics, and which are really needed, tough progressive taxation is required, but this is something no Cambodian government is strong enough to carry out, at least not peacefully. Suppose the requisite laws were passed, but that the rich businesses simply refused to pay their taxes. Then, as happens in well-run Western countries, those owing taxes could be arrested, and even imprisoned, but in the climate which has developed since 1991 that would no doubt require harsh police measures, and then we would see the do-gooders of the NGOs, ‘human rights lawyers’, and international organizations raving about violations of human rights.

As always – Comments from our readers are welcome, especially also when they lead to a debate among some of our readers.

Norbert KLEIN

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  1. Now a days, Women’s are achieving a lot. They became bold in their work and activity. Any work or anything they come forward and willing to do. I love my mother.

  2. government that between 1975 and 1979 ruled the Southeast Asia country of Cambodia . It was founded when the Khmer Rouge forces defeated the Lon Nol -led Khmer Republic . After losing control of most of Cambodian territory to Vietnamese occupation, it survived as a shadow state supported by China. In June 1982, the Khmer Rouge formed the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea with two non-communist guerilla factions, keeping the international recognition.

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