International Women’s Day comes Sunday to Cambodia—a nation without domestic violence laws, a staggering gap of opportunities between men and women, and pitfalls for women that include sexual slavery, accepted illiteracy, and pressure to stay in the home. Enter former Supreme Court Justice Im Run. The undersecretary of state for women’s affairs is the highest-ranking woman in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. The Cambodian People’s Party member is one of a few women to hold an upper-level government job, although she is a few steps below the highest-ranking man in the ministry. She was a physics and chemistry professor who directed the Cambodian Women’s Association before her 1987 appointment to the bench. In an interview with The Cambodia Daily, Im Run discusses the government’s increased advocacy for women, some of women’s greatest barriers, and her view on her own position in government.
Question: How do you feel about the status of women in Cambodia?
Answer: Most Cambodian women have followed their parents’ paths. We have followed one another into the same stereotypes. So we have a lack of skills. Therefore, my ministry has established centers in some of the provinces to nourish women’s skills.
- Can the media help promote a more positive stereotype of women?
- Yes. But media can only help a small portion of women because most of the Cambodian women are illiterate. We have tried hard to garner all the newspapers kept in the libraries and schools in order to let them read. All newspapers, radios and television can somewhat change the traditions, but it takes a long time.
It does not take only one year, two years or five years to change the stereotypes. We have to educate and encourage women. We must do this for the long term.
- What are some of the barriers faced by Cambodian women who want to break out of traditional roles?
- I have just mentioned some of them, including the fact that most Cambodian women are illiterate. Also they are unlikely to allow their daughters to work outside of the house. They want them to work at home as a cook. Sometimes the women do have jobs, but when they get married they quit to become housewives and take care of the children.
- What about women in politics?
- The women themselves automatically decide to back out of politics, department and ministry posts and other jobs. That is why there are few women working in departments or ministries. Meanwhile, Cambodian society does not value women. When people see Cambodian women working in the government posts it is thought that a man could do the job better.
The woman feels like if she gets a job outside the home she will be abandoning her housework. As for me, when I go home after work I usually take time to do some housework.
Also, if there are mixed men and women in a group and the team leader post is offered to a woman, she will turn it down. She will say no. Both Khmer men and women are unlikely to have self-confidence. Khmer women have neither self-confidence nor self-esteem.
- What is the government doing to help promote women’s rights?
- Now we have laws to help women. If the woman wants to get an abortion and she does not get approval from her husband, she can consult with a doctor to get one. Previously, there were no abortion laws and there were only underground clinics.
Now we have a draft law about domestic violence. It has been submitted to the Council of Ministers. Now we have laws to defend women.
- What kind of aid does Cambodia receive to help improve the status of women?
- We have received assistance from foreign countries and NGOs in such programs as literacy, low-interest loans and infant health care. We have received support from the Canadian government, the Japanese government, UNICEF, the French Bank, the United Nations Population Fund, World Food Program and many others.
We have also received money from generous people in Cambodia including the king and queen to build a center in Kompong Speau and one in Kompong Cham. We have received aid from Bun Rany Hun Sen for vocational training in Pursat and we previously received support from Princess Mary Ranariddh.
- Who are your role models and how did you achieve a prominent government post?
- I do not have any role models, and I don’t think that I have a high post.