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Traditional Gender Attitudes and Relations
From a study by GSC Cambodia Country Director, Susan Hagadorn, Ed.D., MPA

While traditional attitudes towards gender in Cambodia appear rigid, a cultural and historical view of gender demonstrates the roles of men and women to be elastic, albeit sometimes contradictory, with female leadership emerging at various points in history. There is a creation story that depicts the Khmer people as the offspring of a wise man and a celestial dancer (Apsara), assigning different, but complementary, capacities and values to men and women. Another legend tells that the original Khmer Empire was ruled by women, who were served by men, and this story is told today in court dance and symbolically incorporated in the traditional marriage ceremony. During the Angkorean period, King Jayavarman VII married a Queen he described as his “chief teacher” and, in partnership, they created systems of universal health care and Buddhist education, for which Queen Indra Devi served as Dean. He later had inscribed on the temple, Preah Khan: “May the Kings of Cambodia who come after me…attain with their wives, dignitaries and friends, the place of deliverance where there is no more illness.” Today, Madame Bun Rany, wife of Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen, serves as President of the Cambodian Red Cross and is described as highly effective in her role as a leading advocate for gendered approaches to HIV and AIDS.

The Chbab Proh and Chbab Srey describe codes of conduct for men and women. The Men’s Code instructs men to behave moderately, to be knowledgeable and resourceful, to work hard, and to protect their property. It warns against adultery, drunkenness, and gambling. The Women’s Code explicitly assigns a lower status to women, prohibits them from voicing opinions, and advises women at all times to respect and obey their husbands and avoid embarrassing them. When asked why Chbab Srey is taught in schools, the Minister of Women’s Affairs responded that it is a matter of national identity. It is noteworthy that the codes reveal an underlying cultural assumption that men are more spiritually evolved than women because one must be a man before one can become a monk before one can become a Buddha. Therefore, men are directed to follow Buddhist precepts and assigned responsibility to provide spiritual and moral guidance to women.

A number of themes emerged from this study:
• An enabling legislative and policy environment for gender equality has emerged and these laws and policies need to be monitored and appropriately enforced. Legislation and policy often is driven by donors, sector ministries and civil society, and are not necessarily internalized by those who are responsible for their enforcement. For example, while the Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation is intended to prevent and create penalties for these crimes, it was passed, in part, to ensure that Cambodia receives a positive assessment in an upcoming review on human trafficking by the U.S. State Department. If Cambodia’s efforts are judged insufficient, it could lose U.S. development aid. However, it is reported that the law is being used by police to exploit sex workers who are being detained, robbed of jewelry and forced to pay bribes to secure their release. Significant education and advocacy is needed to ensure that line ministries, police, the judiciary, and other authorities implement laws and policies appropriately, and that penalties are in place and enforced for abuses.
• Both men and women hold traditional views of gender roles, although these are held less frequently by young people and those living in cities. The violent social transformation that took place under Communist rule, the presence of a majority female population at the end of the Khmer Rouge era, and persistent poverty already have changed women’s roles. Women are major contributors to family income and often have played a key leadership role in rebuilding communities. This contradiction between traditional values and social realities creates tensions that contribute to gender-based violence and serve as a constraint to women’s advancement by limiting their mobility and access to education, health care and decision-making.
• Men and women have different interests regarding development priorities. With the current inflation in land prices, men tend to favor infrastructure programs, such as road building, that lead to higher land values. Ultimately, this can lead to increased landlessness and inequality as families are motivated to sell their land. Women, on the other hand, tend to favor social investments in health and education. Equitable access to decision-making is needed so that women’s voices complement those of men, leading to more robust and comprehensive solutions to the problems of poverty.
• Social change is pre-conditioned by individual change, which is an inherently gradual process. Attention needs to be given to changes in individual values and attitudes leading to changes in behavior at institutional levels. While this type of change requires simultaneous interventions at multiple levels, the ability to engage in dialogue is a key to progress. Lack of substantive communication between men and women, loss of trust within communities, and fear of authority limit the social space in which dialogue can occur. Improving dialogue within the family, while raising community awareness of critical issues and supporting women leaders, are important entry points to be considered.
• Gender is not a women’s issue. It also is a men’s issue and a relationship issue. Male involvement and leadership are needed to nurture the adjustments necessary in male behavior to complement the changes in female roles that already have occurred. Men need to understand that they and their families benefit when men and women work together and to support the contributions women make to the economy and decision-making.

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