Tag Archives: Women’s Health

[Huffington Post] Dominique Strauss-Kahn: So Much for Us to Learn

The Strauss-Kahn case is not about winning or losing, but opening a dialogue on rape, violence and gender.

The events unfolding in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF accused of sexually assaulting a hotel chambermaid, are both surprising and surprisingly not surprising. The New York Times first reported claims that there were serious problems with the prosecution relating to the credibility of Strauss-Kahn’s accuser, who is originally from Guinea.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post.

Eve has helped me clear my mind: should someone who lied in the past be raped because she lied in the past? Is the trial about rape? There was clear evidence of sexual assault.

Mu Sochua

Constructive Cambodian: Recounts the fall of matriarchy


In Cambodian society, which was matriarchal from its foundation, the question of why so few women hold top positions in the government, NGO community and private sector seems to escape all who attempt an answer.

Like their male counterparts, women also desire a share of the economic benefits being made available in today’s rapidly advancing society, but it seems that these changes are more like growing pains for women, who still face countless barriers in order to access the top echelon of power brokers in a country where those who make decisions almost invariably receive a handsome reward, regardless of the merit of their wisdom. 

Cambodia’s government, as part of their efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals established along with the UN, has pledged to increase the number of women in top state spots from 13 percent in 2003 to 15% to 2015. Their intention is high minded, however, until the current state of affairs, where Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An, Minister of Women’s Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi, and opposition party member Mu Sochua are the only female politicians with notable clout, we should withhold our applause. 

Looking at the world beyond the Kingdom’s borders, however, can give us a more optimistic view of today’s gender imbalance. It took decades for societies in the West to give women equal rights and pass women’s suffrage laws. Looking at why those changes were made, it becomes obvious that women’s contribution to the workforce runs parallel to their ownership in the decision making of their society. When women are viewed as an indispensable part of the labour force, it follows that they are able to make demands that might otherwise be ignored. While we can learn from examples abroad, the situation here is somewhat different and, one might think, even more promising.

Unlike America, for example, and its “founding fathers,” a precedent is already in place for female leadership in Cambodia. Queen Lieu Ye, the country’s original monarch, who ruled over a group of Khmer tribes, is known to have formed the Kingdom called Funan, or Nokor Phnom, setting a standard for women as premieres, not only in the family, but in society as a whole.   

In the memory of Queen Lieu Ye’s matriarchy, the word mae (mother) continues to connote the honour of the female-being and, more importantly, traits of ‘greatness, leadership, or of being the essential element’. For example, you still have gender neutral words such as mae-torp (military commander), mae-khum (chief of commune), referring to anyone who holds these positions of power.

It is also worth noting that Cambodians address their parents and grandparents with the female first; “mother and father,” for example, or “grandmother and grandfather.” 

No less important is the sad fact that many children and grandchildren in the country’s recent past needed to make no such distinction, as 90 years of colonization and the blood soaked years that followed left many Cambodians, some who count themselves among the most fortunate, with only a mother to look after them. 

As is often the case after war, it was women who were left to raise the country’s children, with the bare minimum of resources at their disposal. When set in this context, you can’t help but ask what, if not leading the country’s recovery from a genocide, it will take for women’s social status to be raised?  

Only a modern-day fool would argue that a women’s place is still in the kitchen. Women are, quite obviously, the driving force of some of the countries most important industries, agriculture and garments to start, but that alone has not been enough to significantly raise their position in society. The next step is to send women to school, so they can not only fill the lowest rungs of the workforce, essential as they are, but begin to climb the ladder to positions where they can oversee the uplift of all those still labouring for that day’s dinner.

But once again, it is not as if there aren’t already people standing at the top of the proverbial ladder, waiting to knock women down when they approach the top. As long as women are purposefully overlooked for executive jobs in the private sector and the highest positions in the public bureaucracy, even the combination of education and a strong work ethic will fall short.

While they may not be aware of it, the seemingly futile struggle for woman to seize power is a major factor in the decision of many parents to push their girls out the door to make money, foregoing a future in academia and the white collar work force. These pursuits, many parents conclude, are better left to their brothers. 

Speaking at a conference to promote women in leadership last Sunday, Vathiny Ov Liljestrand, Executive Director at the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC), said that the majority of Cambodian women are still in the transition phase, and that they will require a push to reach the same level as men. She added that educators should be weary of sticking to antiquated ideas around gender, and instead look at the truth behind these popular perceptions. “Even in a non-profit world, which we usually think is led by women, not many women are at the top to lead,” she said. 

There is no doubt that Cambodia’s society is moving forward, but, in following the sentiments shared by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Facebook, in a TED speech, women in general underestimate their own abilities, and a world where half the leaders are women would be a better world, end of story. 

Outside forces are partly to blame for the static position of Cambodian women in society, but in the end, it comes down to women to step up to the challenge. In the Cambodian context, access to education is still a dream, yet to be realized. It will require the will of those in power, along the relentless and united struggle of women themselves, for Cambodia’s mothers to one day see their daughters invited to the table to talk.

From White Cloth to Precious Gems: Cambodian Women Challenge Gender Stereotypes and Defend against HIV

by Meghan Lewis

December 1 is World AIDS Day. Image courtesy of NAT.

An ancient Khmer proverb says, “A man is gold; a woman is a white piece of cloth.” Gold can get dirty or be dropped in the mud, but it can be polished and become as shiny as new; if white cloth is dropped in the mud, it will be forever stained, soiled, and ruined. This is a sad reflection of how Cambodian society traditionally views female sexuality. The silencing and shaming of female sexuality means that women often lack their sexual rights and autonomy.

As the world marks World AIDS Day on December 1, Cambodia is often hailed a success as one of the only countries in the world to halt and reverse the spread of HIV from a peak of 2.8 percent in 1998 to an estimated 0.7 percent in 2010. However, harmful gender stereotypes like the one above threaten to undermine efforts and contribute to a second wave of the epidemic.

One woman familiar with today’s realities in Cambodia is Duong Sopheaktra, whose inviting smile and infectious giggle hide a world of pain and disillusionment. Sopheaktra grew up in war-torn Cambodia. Her father was away from home fighting, and she was raised by an abusive stepmother who beat her and did not give her enough to eat. The family lived far away from the nearest school, and subsequently Sopheaktra stopped going to school and worked on the family farm.

Sopheaktra tells the heartbreaking story of how her stepsister sold her virginity when she was 17 years old. “There was an old man waiting for me, and my stepsister told me to greet him saying that he was her uncle. I had meal with them and after that I suddenly became sleepy and asked my stepsister to go back home. So she told the man to take us home by car.

“When I woke up my body was naked, and there was a man holding me. I realized that my future was finished at that time. I was very upset, unable to say anything; I just let my tears come out with the pain in my mind.”

Feeling ashamed that she had lost her virginity, Sopheaktra left home and did not tell her father what had happened. Like many women in the same position, Sopheaktra did not have many options.

“I found work as a beer seller. The wage was very low, though, and I could not afford to pay bills and send money home to my father, who was very ill. I decided to do the second job – whenever there was customer who wanted to sleep with me, I would agree if the price was acceptable because I really needed the money to support my living costs.”

Sopheaktra’s stepsister sold her virginity when she was 17 years old. Photo courtesy of Propeller Pictures.

Extreme poverty and low education levels are the main forces driving women into commercial and transactional sex work in Cambodia. This takes place in a variety of settings from brothels and streets to karaoke bars and beer gardens. There is an HIV prevalence of 14.7 percent among direct sex workers, and they often report pressure from clients to have sex without condoms. In some cases clients will offer to pay more for unprotected sex. To women living in poverty this can be hard to refuse. According to a 2007 report for Pharmaciens Sans Frontiers, 20 percent of entertainment workers were infected with sexually transmitted infections every month – indicating low condom use.In a culture that promotes men’s rights to sexual pleasure and silences female sexuality, sexual violence is endemic. Sex workers are commonly referred to as srey koach (broken women), and are viewed as “spoiled.” As a consequence of this dehumanisation they frequently endure harassment, rape, and violence from a variety of perpetrators. Rape at the hands of clients is a common experience for most women working in the entertainment industry. Sopheaktra was not spared this ordeal.

“Sometimes customers took me to have sex without paying me and even threatened to kill me. When working in a restaurant, some customers cursed and mocked me and even hit my head with glass. Every time I recalled the pain I suffered, I asked why my life was full of sorrow and I just wanted to take poison to end this life because I could not understand.”

According to Amnesty International, rape in Cambodia goes largely unreported due to a number of reasons. Even though sex work in Cambodia is not illegal, the Cambodian Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation is often used by police to harass and exploit sex workers. A Human Rights Watch Report in 2010 exposed how sex workers are often physically and sexually abused by police and other authorities. Consequently, sex workers who are raped do not trust the police. Furthermore, there is a general lack of confidence that the perpetrator will be convicted, and the shame that rape survivors feel often prevents them from reporting the crime.

It is not only sex workers who suffer such experiences of gender inequality. The majority of married women in Cambodia have no choice other than to face the reality that their husbands will have extramarital sexual relationships with paid and unpaid partners. Men are more likely to use condoms with paid partners, but many do not use condoms consistently with unpaid partners. The result is that married women account for 43 percent of new HIV infections, according to a 2008 survey by Cambodia’s National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology, and STD. Domestic rape is against the law in Cambodia, but it is common and is rarely reported to authorities due partially to a widespread lack of understanding from both wives and husbands about sexual rights within marriage.

Sopheaktra has become a peer educator and facilitates discussions, support, and workshops for fellow entertainment workers. Photo courtesy of Propeller Pictures.

Out of great sorrow, Sopheaktra has found incredible inner strength and the motivation to help other women facing similar challenges. She has risen from depression and has become a role model for other entertainment workers. Through hard work and determination, Sopheaktra has become a peer educator and facilitates discussions, support, and workshops for fellow entertainment workers. She challenges harmful gender stereotypes and breaks taboos by talking candidly about sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV. By talking about these subjects, she hopes that other sex workers will be better equipped to negotiate safe sex with clients, and will not feel ashamed to seek sexual health treatment or to report abuse.The work that Sopheaktra does is invaluable to her peers and is much needed in communities where commercial sex is so readily available. But in order to meaningfully tackle the issues, it is not going to be enough to empower women and enlist them in the response. It is imperative that men share this responsibility and challenge prevalent male attitudes, not only to prevent a second wave of the epidemic, but to work toward a more gender equitable society.

Prominent female politician Mu Sochua is working hard to promote equality in Cambodia. She has led the influx of thousands of women into government positions, though change remains slow in the male-dominated society. One of Mu Sochua’s early ministerial acts was to launch a gender equality campaign to rewrite the Khmer proverb as “A man is gold; a woman is a precious gem.” This new version of the proverb represents women and men as equally valuable, and challenges the belief that a woman’s actions will stain her forever.
About the author:
Meghan Lewis
is the policy, advocacy, and communications officer for the Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance and works to reduce discrimination against marginalized groups in the response to HIV and AIDS. She has been a key actor in the formation of Cambodia’s first LGBT group, Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK). Throughout her personal, academic, and professional life, her primary passion has been to reduce the inequalities that exist in so many areas of society and work towards a future where opportunities are accessible to all people regardless of ethnicity, economics, gender, and sexuality.

Original post at the WIP.