Nearly half of the children enrolled in preschool in Cambodia in recent years were girls. But at the other end of the educational process, only 19 percent of the students enrolled in high school were girls.
Those numbers, from a 1995 Unicef study, illustrate what advocates for women say is one of the major obstacles for women who want to break out of traditional roles: Lack of education.
Women are also faced with little representation in government and a traditional society that sees them as caretakers of home and children and believes things such as domestic violence should not be discussed outside the family.
International Women’s Day is a day set aside to highlight the status of women throughout the world. Phnom Penh marked the event 9 am Saturday with a ceremony at Chaktomuk Theater featuring entertainment and government officials. Banners have been hung on Sihanouk and Norodom boulevards to encourage respect for women.
But there is no precedent in Cambodia for women’s rights. Prostitution, violence, poverty and lack of job training are just some of the many problems they face.
Some estimates say that as many as 90 percent of Cambodian women earn money to help their families. But many of them are in low-paying menial jobs, such as working in garment factories or as housekeepers.
“It seems they are the hardest workers in the world,” said Kek Galabru, president of the NGO Licadho.
She and others pointed out that the reason women’s issues don’t receive more consideration in Cambodia is because there are no women in power. They can tick off the examples in seconds:
– There are no women on the National Election Committee.
– There are no women involved in the peace negotiations.
– There are only seven women in the National Assembly.
“Always, always, always only men have the right to do things,” Kek Galabru said.
Tioulong Saumura, a member of the steering committee of the Khmer Nation Party and founding member of Funcinpec, said women are not encouraged to go into politics.
“The participation of women in politics is tiny,” she said. “Women hold a potential power which might be important and which could change the whole evolution of society. But they do not recognize that potential power and they do not know how to transfer that potential power into actual power.”
Tioulong Saumura grew up in a political family and is married to Khmer Nation Party leader Sam Rainsy. She said she was able to get an education and convince her male colleagues that her opinions are important.
Not all Cambodian women are so fortunate. Chea Vannath, director of the Center for Social Development, said the instability in Cambodia over the past 25 years has made it almost impossible for women to achieve a higher status. She said that in the 1960s, a time of more stability for Cambodia, there were more women in parliament and more women in higher academic positions. She thinks that time will come again as part of the natural evolution of a developing country like Cambodia.
“You don’t achieve overnight,” Chea Vannath said. “You have to go over a very rocky road. That’s what we’re doing right now.”