Women’s Rights in CambodiaOfficially, Cambodia is a democratic nation with legislation in place to protect women from domestic violence and trafficking. Cambodia’s economic development and restructuring of its government that creates such protections for women cannot be ignored considering its very recent history of a devastating genocide that destroyed almost all state and private institutions. Despite this transformation and progress for Cambodian women, they still do not receive the same rights, access and protections as their male counterparts. Here are seven of the most important things to know about the current state of women’s rights in Cambodia.

7 Things to Know about Women’s Rights in Cambodia

  1. The Positives: The literacy rate for adult women increased from 57% to 75% between 1998 and 2015. Women also own 61% of businesses in Cambodia even though they make up only about 51% of the population.

  2. Representation: The percentage of women in politics has increased dramatically since Cambodia rebuilt itself in the 1990s, but women still hold less than 20% of positions. Women only make up about 14% of Cambodia’s judges and 20% of its lawyers.

  3. Sex Trafficking: A 2018 Global slavery index reported that Cambodia has over 260,000 victims of human and sex trafficking. The capital city of Phnom Penh is home to almost 20,000 prostitutes, many of whom are underage. One rescue organization claims that 40% of victims they worked with were minors. Virginity is sold for $800, which is more than 20 times the weekly wage, according to UNICEF, leaving poor families with impossible choices. Lack of enforcement for this practice is suspected to be a result of law enforcement’s connections with brothels.

  4. Domestic Violence: According to U.N. reports, one in five women ages 15 to 49 in Cambodia experiences physical violence. Migrant workers and sex workers are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence. Women with disabilities are also more at risk of emotional, physical and sexual violence. Despite this systemic issue, one national human rights group reported in 2017 that because domestic violence isn’t considered a criminal offense in many Cambodian courts most women drop complaints or do not press charges at all. From 2014 to 2016 only about 20% of national domestic violence cases were being monitored. Also, although acid attacks are illegal now, Cambodian women still fall victim annually and the Human Rights Watch calls for more protections.

  5. The Chbap Srey: The “law for women” or a set of rules taught to girls by their female family members, or even in schools, is based on a poem by male poet Krom Ngoy that has been recited for hundreds of years. The poem, which includes instructions for how to respect one’s husband and places boys’ education over girls’, is still regarded as the basic foundation of gender roles in Cambodia. Until 2007 it was part of the national curriculum, but many schools, having only removed some of the rules, continue to teach it to boys and girls. One critical aspect of this rulebook is it encourages women to not speak about the inner workings of a home and a marriage to the outside world. Both the U.N. and other women’s’ rights groups have spoken out against the Chbap Srey for perpetrating domestic violence.

  6.  The Law on Public Order: In 2019 a national legislation draft was introduced that could allow police to fine or arrest women who are dressed “inappropriately” in public spaces. The law would police how modest or “see-through” women’s’ clothes are and prevent men from going merely without a shirt. The law is responding to state officials complaining that women are using sexy clothes to sell products online. The prime minister said this goes against traditional Cambodian values and traditions. One minister spoke in favor of the legislature to media outlets and claimed that “it is good to wear something no shorter than the middle of the thigh” and that the law is “not entirely a matter of public order, it’s a matter of tradition and custom”. While provincial officials have responded with support for this law, women’s rights groups vehemently reject it. They challenge the oppressive aspects of traditional dress and culture and argue that legalizing the policing of women’s outfits will normalizing the blaming of domestic and sexual violence victims rather than the perpetrators.

As Cambodia makes major development strides and women contribute to its emerging economy and reject their imposed inferiority, they face pushback from a culture grappling with its own traditions. A lack of support and transparency also prevents women from speaking out about abuse. But more and more women are being educated and fighting for each other each year. Representation in politics for Cambodian women is higher than ever. Alongside international organizations, they are working to make women’s rights in Cambodia a priority and end the predatory systems of sex trafficking.

– Elizabeth Stankovits
Photo: Flickr