International Women's Day in Cambodia: A Giant First Step

by Liz Bernstein

Pink and green banners proclaiming "End Violence Against Women" and "Women Build Peace" remain strung up in the streets of Cambodia's capital, indicating the themes of this year's International Women's Day. March 8, International Women's Day, was declared a national holiday by the Royal Cambodian Government. Cambodian women's groups, in cooperation with the newly established Secretariat for Women's Affairs, launched a series of events to celebrate the day. Activities included a visit by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to women in two Phnom Penh prisons (eight women were later released as a result of the visit); recognition of the new women's police team; a religious ceremony of offerings to Buddhist monks and nuns; and a national workshop on AIDS.

Perhaps the most moving event was a peace walk led by Buddhist monks and nuns through Phnom Penh's prostitution district. There are an estimated 10,000 sex workers in Cambodia now, a number which has greatly swelled over the past two years after the influx of over 20,000 UN peacekeeping soldiers and foreign businessmen.

Banners proclaiming "Stop Violence and Trafficking of Women" and "Stop Exploitation of Women" were carried as about 1,000 marchers, with flowers, incense sticks and candles, walked through the red light district. Over 100 participants had travelled from four outlying provinces, led by local Buddhist clergy. The four hour walk was led by Maha Ghosananda, the recent Nobel Peace Prize nominee and spiritual leader of two peace walks across Cambodia's war-torn provinces. The marchers encouraged the creation of real economic alternatives for women and expressed their solidarity with both the Vietnamese and Cambodian sex workers, thus helping to bridge some of the mistrust between the two ethnic groups. The evening ended with a candlelight ceremony, ´illuminating the darkness', and chanting at Independence Monument.

Police were seen barring people from entering one red-light district hours before the march, causing one organizer to comment, "Now we know who is in charge of the brothels--the police!" Organizers had leafletted and talked with women in the area days before the march to explain their solidarity while speaking out against the exploitation of women. Most local media still chose to focus on the ´loss of business' and lack of understanding of some of the workers about the march's meaning. Marchers had asked the press to focus on the social and economic causes of the sex industry, rather than blaming the women workers. One local newspaper did quote a teenaged prostitute as saying, "Because of today's procession, women may one day get full rights--and may even get on top of the men exploiting them."

In a position paper outlining plans for March 8, the Secretariat for Women's Affairs stated, "Although war and destruction have affected all Cambodians of every level of society, women have undoubtedly been most victimized by these years of conflicts. Women are over 60 percent of the population...and more than 30 percent of these women must raise their families alone...The improved status of women, including the full recognition and participation of women in the reconstruction of the country, is the fundamental base for sustainable development and peace...Cambodia cannot afford to ignore the strength of its women and the suffering they have endured for more than two decades."

The Secretariat stated that a year-long campaign would be devoted to the issue of violence against women. This is ground breaking in a society where domestic violence is still taboo. The Secretariat will work to encourage that legislation securing women's rights be adopted. The new constitution, revealed last September, clearly defines women's rights, thanks to the lobbying of the Constitutional Assembly by Cambodian women and NGOs. Yet these rights remain to be guaranteed by legal mechanisms, particularly family, employment and criminal law. The campaign will encourage, for example, that laws regarding rape, trafficking of women and children, and domestic violence be adopted.

As the position paper continued, "The culture of violence pervading a society at war has fostered tolerance of violence against women. Although recent economic improvements have benefitted a very small portion of the society, women have not reaped many of such gains." A newly established media center, the Voice of Cambodian Women, will lead the media campaign. Having recently received training in video techniques, four women and a team of women writers will publicize the campaign and prepare television and radio sketches. In addition, brochures and reports with information on the situation of Cambodian women will be produced in Cambodian and English. Interviews and debates on women's situation will be broadcast on national radio, television and in the national and international press.

As one woman organizer said of all the special three-day events around March 8, "It will benefit our children. In fact we are doing this for them. It is a first step. We hope it is the first step to build a society which creates effective laws and puts them into practice to protect women's rights...."

Liz Bernstein works with the Coalition for Peace and Reconciliation (CPR), Maha Ghosananda Center for Nonviolence and Peace in Cambodia and the World, Wat Sampeo Meas, P.O. Box 144, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Fax +855 232 6400. Donations for CPR's work may be sent to 87/2 Soi 15, Sukehmunt Road, Bangkok, Thailand 10110.