An old Cambodian saying on the worth of men and women compares women to white cloth, soft and valuable when pure, but worthless once it’s been stained.
Men, the saying goes, are like gold—strong and impossible to tarnish.
Advocates for women participating in the Gender and Development Conference last week said it’s time to update that slogan to “Women are like diamonds,” as beautiful and durable as gold, and at least as precious.
The conference continues today at the Juliana Hotel with a discussion on trafficking of women and children. Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng is scheduled to speak.
Mu Sochua, Minister of Women’s and Veterans’ Affairs, said the purpose of the conference is to improve the status of women and opportunities to develop their potential. The event is sponsored by the UN Population Fund’s Gender Resource and Information Programme.
Speakers on Friday noted that across Cambodia, women work side by side with men on farms, as well as providing most of the workforce in garment factories, the nation’s largest industry. But virtually all top jobs are held by men, including all provincial and municipal governorships.
According to statistics provided by the Ministry of Women’s and Veterans Affairs, 42 percent of women work every day at “informal” jobs that require little skill and do not generate regular paychecks; by comparison, 17 percent of men hold such jobs. “Informal” jobs include street and market vendors, household workers and agricultural workers who do not hold other jobs.
Eng Kantha Phavy, secretary of state for the ministry, said many women are driven into poverty when they divorce. In practice, she said, officials often allow ex-husbands to retain title to the family’s land.
“Many women leave the house with nothing,” she said.
Other studies showed few women get enough education to hold down managerial jobs. According to a 1998 census, only 19.7 percent of women completed primary school.
Some women turn to the sex trade to make a living. According to a 1995 study of prostitution by the UN Children’s Fund, there were about 14,000 prostitutes working in Cambodia. A study by the same organization a year later found that one-third of prostitutes interviewed said they were driven to prostitution by poverty, while two-thirds said they had been tricked or sold into the trade.
Another difficulty women face is a tradition requiring daughters to shoulder a large share of the burden when hard times strike a family. Senator Chhea Thang, a conference participant, said it is expected, “if poverty comes to a family, that the eldest sister will sacrifice to support her younger brothers and sisters.”