International Women's Day: "I wanted to show my father that women can lead."

Phnom Penh, 08. March 2019

The two women Chan Sokha (35) and Suyheang Kry (32) each lead a Johanniter partner organisation in Cambodia. In this, they are exceptional, as the role of women in Cambodia is still only hesitantly placed above well-known patterns: Kitchen instead of academic, mother instead of leadership responsibility. Families in particular are control organs of such traditional gender norms, and so does the society. Break through such “glass ceiling” to become a women leader was not an easy struggle for them. The country is a long way from achieving a gender balance.

Chan Sokha (left) has been working for Khmer Community Development (KCD) since 2005 and is Director of the NGO. Suyheang Kry (right) has headed Women Peace Makers since 2016. Foto: Johanniter

The motto of this year's Women's Day stands for more gender balance. What is the balance like in Cambodia?

Suyheang: Very limited in almost all sectors, especially at decision-making levels. For example, the proportion of women in the National Assembly is less than 20 percent. Not only is the presence low, but also the participation in important decisions. Women are definitely under-represented.

Sokha: In rural communities, the role of women is usually limited to their function as mothers, wives or housewives. Gender balance in rural communities would in fact mean leaving this framework and giving women more responsibility. Let them study or do things they want. We are committed to this rethinking in the countryside.

What is the openness towards the topic of gender and the will for change like there?

Suyheang: The topic of gender is now openly talked about, unlike the post conflict period in 1990s when even the term “gender” was not accepted or even understood. However, the implementation toward substantive equality across all fields is far-reached. Among many other structural challenges, the violence against women, the lack of awareness and the will to challenge such negative gender norms, just to name a few, are something needed to address first and foremost. In Cambodia, one in five women suffers from intimate partner violence, either physical or sexual, while every third suffers emotional violence.  A 2010 survey revealed that one third of local authorities and police believed that there were plausible justifications for violence against women by spouses. In such a patriarchal society, half of the female victims believe that violence against them is okay. After all, there are now numerous initiatives that seek to change awareness and the legal framework to address such issues

Sokha: In order to break up and change this view, we have started to work together with young people. They are more open and can show the older generation that girls can achieve just as much as boys and they get to know their rights.

Chan Sokha: "Girls can do something for their community and experience recognition." ©Johanniter

Putting the issue of gender on the agenda and achieving change is a lengthy process that takes a lot of perseverance, isn't it?

Sokha: Yes, it takes a long time, but the successes can be seen. For example, we worked for ten years on the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. The parents there told us that especially their girls can't do anything when they grow up. But when they got involved in our Peace Clubs* and got a higher education, the parents took the opportunity. Instead of taking their children out of school early for work, the parents recognize education as a cornerstone. About 60 percent of club members are girls aged eight to 16. They experience there that they can do something for their community and experience recognition.

You're both running your respective NGOs. How was the way there?

Suyheang: I've been fighting for equality, especially in the family, since I was a little girl to become who I am today. I grew up in a conservative family plagued with poverty and trauma of war. While education for girls was not valued at that time, I fought against it and became the only one of five bigger siblings to graduate. Nevertheless, my mother always wished I were a boy so then I can “fly”. But I believe woman can also “fly” if you let her be. Seeing my sisters and all women around me made me realize that only education can free me from the vicious cycle of poverty and violence.

In my family today, everyone but me is active in the business world. My social work was out of the ordinary and underpinned my parents' wish that I should have been a better boy. Even at the age of 23, when I had already embarked on my path of conflict transformation, they asked me when I was going to get married and that it was time. All other weddings in my family were arranged but I determine to be an “odd one out” and make my own choice. I always believe that I am possible if I am given the same opportunity and means to access to that opportunity. So I accepted the leadership position in the current organization to explore my full potential, but also to challenge my father, show him that women can lead. With my conviction, perseverance, and achievements, my family has now gradually supporting and believing in the choice I made.

Suyheang Kry: "Families are a control body in Cambodia." ©Johanniter

Is that your destiny or other women's?

Suyheang: All women - whether on a community basis or in ministries - have the same problems. No matter how busy you are: as a mother you have to take care of the children and the household. I remember an exceptional and well-respected female teacher in a village who was going to become the school principal. However, she refused it because she was in charge of breakfast before seven in the morning, she also had to cook at lunchtime and she could not spend extra time in an office or going out to meetings. At all levels, they receive a lot of personal pressure if they take a different path. Women are expected to deliver like men in their jobs. We have to act like someone who has no children at home. Women often do not have a role of their own. That is why we need more gender justice.

Sokha: My experiences are similar. You have to fight daily to achieve your goals and each time show people that you can do it. You have to keep your self-confidence, you can't do without it. I remember when I was at university when I wanted to get involved as a volunteer. My family was against it. At that time, women were hardly able to go to school or work. The neighbors of our house began to whisper: "This woman is bad. Maybe she has problems or a boyfriend..." You complained to my father, and he complained to me. There was almost no support for me and my father's complaint was demotivating.

So it is above all the family structures that are responsible for the lack of gender justice?

Suyheang: Families are a control body in Cambodia. That is why women's groups are so important to us. We cannot go home and say how exhausting and difficult our day was. If you complain, then quit. That is the attitude that strikes against you. My experience, however, is that family should be involved in change processes. Today, all my nieces and nephews receive a higher education. They see me as a role model because, against an old Khmer saying of a woman, I am “going far and diving deep” and have freed myself from those invisible shackles. I think that is why we are experiencing progress compared to the nineties.

Interview: Tommy Ramm

*KCD founds and supports so-called Peace Clubs in order to bring young people together in the Cambodian-Vietnamese border region. For decades there have been prejudices and rejections between both population groups, caused by past armed conflicts and border shifts. In recent years, the Peace Clubs have produced socially committed people who are involved in their communities and have a positive impact as multipliers. This reduces tensions and promotes coexistence.

The following story describes how KCD achieves changes in the field of gender in practice:

"As the PCD (Prek Chrey Community for Development) started its activities together with KCD in 2008, its members chose a woman with high organisational talents to be their leader. However, after a few months she renounced. The reason was that the oldest in the village convinced her husband that it was not good for his status as a man to have a wife in a higher social position as himself.

The next election of a leader did put a man in this position, as also women trusted a man more than their sisters. It was so until 2013, then KCD proposed that for the next choice, only women shall apply: this was a good way not to let men loose their face, and to encourage women to pay more attention to the capacities of their sisters.

Finally, the woman who has been chosen then revealed to be the best possible leader of the PCD, respected by all as being full of attention for the needs of individuals and in the community and also being a good sample as a successful organic farmer.

Today we can observe that more and more women are ready to overtake responsibility in the face of the community."

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