Gender-based violence, participation in political and social processes and shrinking spaces: How do women's rights activists work under increasingly constrained circumstances in Cambodia?
Local NGOs in Cambodia started to establish themselves in the early 1990s, after Cambodia signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending decades of civil war. Today, Cambodia has more than 5,000 civil society organizations that are registered with the Ministry of Interior.
Gender based violence and gender inequality are widespread problems in the country. Ros Sopheap is Executive Director of Gender and Development for Cambodia (GADC) and has been working to promote women's and gender issues for three decades. Bunn Rachana, Executive Director of Klahaan represents the young generation of CSOs that work for the promotion of womens’ rights in Cambodia. In conversations with both activists, we talked about women’s empowerment through rights-based education, the role of networks for exchange, as well as the increasing challenges they face due to shrinking spaces for civil society in the country.
Ros Sopheap, Executive Director of GADC began her civil society engagement in 1995 when she joined a local organization as a research facilitator on domestic violence in Cambodia. Sopheap was driven to do something against the widespread domestic violence that was taking place in families in the country.
"Domestic violence is extremely harmful and unfair. Women need to understand their rights and be able to get help when they find themselves victims of abuse at home," she said.
GADC works towards ending gender-based violence and empowering young women to become leaders. Her organisation works in a decentralised structure and the projects focus on community building.
In her work spanning the past 30 years, GADC’s advocacy, networking and community outreach has achieved much in terms of public recognition of women in leadership positions and their involvement in social development. They have set up ‘Gender Cafés’ in different provinces, a women’s support group format, where especially young women get together to discuss challenges they face, from domestic abuse, issues around migration and everyday things. The Gender Cafés are safe spaces where women can exchange their experiences, seek support and collectively find solutions that benefit their community.
CSOs challenging the status quo
Political representation of women has increased significantly over the past decade: As of 2018, about 25% of Cambodia's National Assembly members and 19% of the members of the Senate were women. In the executive, three ministers, 45 secretaries of state, and 69 sub-secretaries of state are women, representing 14.5% compared to 7.4% in 1998.
Despite the impact that Ros Sopheap and her organisation have had over the last three decades, CSOs like hers are faced with difficulties when it comes to publicly expressing their views and working with the government. Local authorities are often uncooperative and make it difficult for them to work on the ground.
"We have to be flexible and work according to the political situation, but we are not partisan. When we talk with state agencies we work by our principles which are based on the law", says Ros Sopheap illustrating the response of her organisation to address that challengen.
Women’s challenges in Cambodia
Organisations working to promote women's rights and gender equality, like GADC, have been educating, providing legal assistance, and campaigning for awareness of women's rights and gender equality.
Bunn Rachana is the Executive Director of Klahaan ('brave' in Khmer), another independent organisation that mobilises and campaigns on issues that affect women in Cambodia. According to her, women in Cambodia are exposed to many forms of gender based violence - be it verbal, mental, physical, in online spaces or at home.
“Violence and abuse have detrimental effects on women in society,” she says. "It affects a woman's ability to exercise her rights to the fullest, especially her ability to participate in social work or have access to higher education. Parents in the countryside are still afraid to send their daughters to study away from home because they are worried that they may face harassment or abuse."
According to Rachana, the prevalence of violence against women is due to the patriarchial structures in Cambodian society. Domestic violence and gender discrimination in the workplace continue to be high because those in leadership postions are still predominantly men.
“When the leaders of ministries, major national institutions as well as the judiciary are all men, it is because of patriarchal structures. The particular needs of women were never part of their education, nor do they have any understanding of gender equality. That is how decisions are made without taking women’s rights and needs into account or acknowledging that women suffer disproportionately from discrimination and violence”, says Rachana. In order to improve the situation of women, the government has a key role to play, especially in education by making gender and gender equality integral subjects in the school syllabus.
According to Rachana, "Sexual health and reproductive health and rights should also be taught in schools because the younger generation should know that men and women have equal rights and freedoms. Young people should challenge our social norms in terms of culture and gender equality.”
According to The Ministry of Women's Affairs's Neary Ratanak Bulletin from 2018, violence against women contributes majorly to gender inequality in Cambodia. It acknowledges that gender based violence is an obstacle to Cambodia's socio-economic progress that affects mental well-being as well as bodily integrity. It concludes that violence against women is against human rights and it has a very negative impact on the lives of women and their children. According to the bulletin, 21% of Cambodian women between the ages of 15 to 64 have experienced physical and/or sexual violence committed by a male intimate partner, while 32% of women are suffering from emotional abuse.
“Societies that treat women unequally to men are unable to develop and flourish”, says Rachana. The work of civil society to promote women's rights is therefore essential for the empowerment of women and protecting them from discrimination and violence.
"Our role is to hold up the mirror to the government and continuously remind them of their duties to protect human and women’s rights. Furthermore, we provide critical feedback to the state policies when we see gaps or problems in their implementation. Apart from that, CSOs also make an important contribution to social development, especially in the areas of labour and vocational training”, says Rachana.
Besides civil society, international organisations also represent indispensable partners in the protection of women's rights in Cambodia. "Through our work with international organisations we have better access to information and resources, which also directly improves the quality of our work. [...] Thanks to this cooperation, we are able to raise our voices and mobilise more widely, which strengthens our advocacy work and improves our visibility.”
While appreciating the work with international organisations, Rachana is critical of their work approach in Cambodia. According to her, international organisations often have their own agendas and ways of working which are not always agreeable with the local culture. To improve the cooperation with local organisations, international agencies should show more openness to local perspectives, ethics and values.
Thanks to the work of CSOs that promote women’s rights and gender equality, people have overall become more sensitised to women’s and gender issues and are more likely to bring these issues into the public debate.