Khmer Women: The Women's Peace Organization

In the world today, women have many duties and obligations. They are responsible for giving birth and have transformed humankind so as to develop sufficient abilities to build up world peace.

Unfortunately, in the poorest countries, women have weak spirits as a result of customs, religion and civil war. Specifically, in Indochinese countries such as Cambodia, women have been victimized by government policies since post-independence. Mental and physical repression made women not undertake key leadership positions.

Women have been treated like instruments for men for generations. Men have used many tricks for cheating women. If women were recognized at all, they were like flowers decorating the table, honoring male leaders who are the controllers of power. Later, in the burning war in Cambodia [during the Pol Pot regime, when hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were starved, beaten and tortured], women experienced unending difficulties and bitter suffering, being separated from families and husbands. Women were terrorized and forced to work heavily both day and night by a cruel and violent regime. Food was inadequate and and of poor quality, so hunger forced women to act like animals: they ate banana stalks, every kind of small fish, lizards or rotten vegetables. Eating like animals in order to live affected women in ways still evident now; poor health, depression, mental illness — all factors in forcing women to act as servants to men. Social custom has continued to relegate women to servants’ roles.

Today many countries are concerned about the complex problems of Cambodia, and mediation and discussions to solve these issues are going on. Yet women do not participate. Women were not thought of. Taking advantage of this situation, kidnappers have taken unaccompanied girls and sold them like animals. In Site 2, a camp for Cambodian refugees, sometimes men cheat women by having sex without taking them as real wives. This results in women being secret slaves, ridden by scandal, bad reputations and broken hearts. They often are left to become prostitutes. Some husbands force their wives to earn money which the men use for their own pleasure. If the wife cannot earn enough, they are beaten or forced to steal or become engaged in prostitution. Women’s issues such as rape, polygamy, polyandry, battering, etc are not considered at all. Children of destitute families are often forced to act as thieves, beggars and pickpockets. At times, husbands punish their wives by forcing them to agree to divorce. They take other wives, using privileges they may have from their career to take liberties and abandon the first wife.

In Site 2 we’ve also faced the loss of women’s rights in other sectors, such as in legal matters, where the police have often ignored or set back women’s rights. Some parents compel their daughters to take husbands. They forbid them to study, afraid that this would lead their daughters to having sweethearts. These matters led women to great sorrow and some decided to commit suicide.

Women in the camp have tried to find a way to train themselves and help the community, but their efforts have been hurt by others who wanted to continue women’s repression. Women were then made useless rather than given more power and rights, because women were not a priority for the leaders.

Cambodian women have suffered, like other women in Indochina. and elsewhere, because we are weak economically and have suffered war and bloodshed. The world today has complex problems due to human acts. Humanity has created science, yet in spite of such highly developed intelligence, human beings still use their strength to destroy.

For preventing such disastrous activities there is only one method; women should unite to help save and rebuild society. Women, who are the mothers of the world, who give birth and provide homes for husbands and children, are the natural ones who can educate people to love one another, to value life and world peace. Women are now 69% of the population in Cambodia. Women must cooperate in constructing peace.

Women of conscience must lead the way for the next generation and for a new history of Khmer women in Indochina. For these reasons, a group of women have volunteered to set up an organization in Site 2. We want to foster self-confidence, confidence in our nation and a sense of community. We don’t want to see women as a garden or flower decorating male leadership. We don’t want women to be oppressed mentally or physically by men. Some ideas from old traditions have to be changed. Women in the world have to be equal to men. Women must have sovereignty, power, independence, justice and the ability to organize, just as the Declaration of Human Rights guarantees. The Women’s Peace Organization hopes to encourage women to contact other women for our future.

First we would like to care for abandoned children, feed them and teach them to be good citizens and to care for others. We also want to educate prostitutes who are often depressed and also help women supplement their incomes, since so many problems come from their inability to earn a living. We don’t want women to depend 100% on others. Many of society’s illnesses come from these economic problems and to prevent them people (and women) need economic independence. We have often met and exchanged ideas and opinions about women’s problems. On May 17, 1991 we decided to give ourselves the name “Women’s Peace Organization” (WPO) and to formalize our initiatives.

by Yok Kalyan, chairwoman of the WPO