You have to love a country that has a public holiday in celebration of International Women’s Day. And you have to love it even more when it is one of the poorest nations in the world.
On the face of it, it seems somewhat ironic that a public holiday is granted to honour women in Cambodia. It’s reputation for women’s rights is not exactly exemplary.
Women in Cambodia make up some of the most vulnerable citizens, whether they are poor girls from rural areas with little or no access to education or elderly women with no family support. Their lives and their livelihoods are often precarious.
These two beautiful Cambodian grandmothers were in very vulnerable situations before being provided with support from Together for Cambodia’s Diamond Age program. One supports her grandchildren, and means she and the children are able to live together without the need for the children to go into care. Their health is monitored and the education of the children. It is a small thing that makes a big difference to the lives of the vulnerable.
Some problems Cambodian women face
Domestic violence is a big problem in Cambodia and many women accept this is something that happens if their husbands or fathers have been drinking. Sexual abuse is also an issue – for women and young girls. Illiteracy is all too common and young girls, especially girls from rural areas, often miss out on an education. This in turn, means they have few employment options as adults and without the ability to read and write are often placed in predicaments where they do not have access to all the facts.
While the legal age of marriage is 18, there are still reports of child brides. We met one very strong young lady who fled her home at the age of 13 because her father was going to force her into marriage. Some 13 years later she is a strong, determined, switched-on business woman with hopes and goals and a vision for her future. Sadly, her sister followed the path she had been destined for. It was many years before this lady was able to return home to see her family, fearing for her safety. And not many young teens have the fortitude and the drive to flee from a small rural village to a city where there are no family or friends. She was in an incredibly vulnerable situation but had the determination to find work and attend school, aiming to have a bright future she was in control of.
Poverty also contributes to a lack of options and the increased vulnerability of women and girls. Human trafficking is rife. Girls and young women are sometimes sold into prostitution by their families or go down that path because they feel they have no other options. They are also increasingly at risk of being trafficked overseas on the premise of being offered jobs that sadly, never eventuate or practically enslave them with no pay and no freedom of movement.
- About 25% of Cambodian women experience physical violence before they turn 18
- One in eight women have become mothers by the age of 19
- One in three Cambodian men have perpetrated physical and/or sexual violence against their intimate partner
- More than 50% of men have used at least one act of emotional abuse against their intimate partner
The situation is sobering. The answers are not always straight-forward but education and skills training are obviously important factors in turning lives around and creating opportunities and secure futures.
Women with a future
One simple tote bag has changed the lives of these five women. The bags, sold through a fair trade program in Australia have ensured these lovely ladies have a secure income. They work five days a week, they have holiday entitlements and they are given maternity leave when applicable.
They are supported in a safe working environment, provided by Together for Cambodia and made possible through the support of Spotlight stores in Australia, where the bags are sold. These ladies are able to support their children and the work has given them purpose and independence. Such important things.
Women’s Rights in Cambodia
Cambodia’s constitution allows for civil liberties for its citizens, including equal rights for women. Sadly, while the law is in place, the reality is so often not followed through. Women in Cambodia are legally entitled to maternity leave, which is more than can be said for many western countries. But again, while the law is in place it is not always met.
We have encountered many divorced women, which suggests they had the gumption to get up and leave a bad situation, although it is not always their choice. Sadly, there are often not opportunities for divorced women to remarry. Divorce is often frowned upon, and that in turn, can lead to vulnerability such as children left unattended while mothers go to work, long hours and health problems from the type of work they do, particularly if there is no family support.
Organisations supporting Cambodian women
Fortunately there are some wonderful organisations making a difference to the lives of girls and women in Cambodia. These organisations run a variety of programs to educate, empower and support women. They all have programs or initiatives you can support. Here are a few:
- Women’s Resource Centre
- Cambodia Rural School Trust
- This Life Cambodia
- Together for Cambodia
- Destiny Rescue
So, hat’s off to Cambodia for creating a public holiday to celebrate International Women’s Day. But here’s to instigating change to ensure the rights of women are respected at all levels of the community and more women are empowered to take care of their own futures.
This post is for all the strong and courageous women in the world and for all the vulnerable and at risk women still needing a mountain of support to get ahead.
*Disclaimer: The Journo has been working as a volunteer photographer with Together for Cambodia for about eight months, recording the organisation’s many projects.