Women in Cambodia

November 28, 2013

Earlier this week, I had to organise a conference here in Phnom Penh, which involved getting a bunch of CEOs and decision-makers to sit through two hours of indescribably dull chat, and then have lunch. The guests who made it were a pretty impressive collection of PP’s great and good, and represented quite a lot of economic and social power.

But wandering around the lunch afterwards, I was struck by something: how few women there were. Out of about 60 people, there were about four women, and half of those were foreigners. This made me quite uncomfortable.

I think my discomfort was partly to do with a recent United Nations report that said that an astonishing 20.8 percent of Cambodian men interviewed admitted to having raped a woman, while 15.8 percent of those who admitted to raping did so under the age of 15. And more than five percent of Cambodian men have committed gang rape, considerably higher than the intolerable regional average. Forty-five percent of men who had reported having raped said they had done so out of “sexual entitlement.” And 49 percent of all men interviewed in Cambodia have had sex with a sex worker or paid for sex.

A gang of rapists

A gang of rapists

These statistics are shocking. But not entirely surprising. Until 2007, schools in Cambodia taught, as part of their core curriculum, such as it is, something called the Chbab Srey, or Code for Women. The Chbab Srey, which is written in verse, lays out a set of rules and principles for women, and encourages deference to their husbands. “You must remember to serve your husband. Don’t make him unhappy. Never touch his head. A woman must be polite and shy.” And so forth.

A Khmer blogger recently wrote that when she travelled to the provinces and talked to women about their experiences, she asked “what kind of husband they would pick. Many said simply, ‘One who drinks less and beats me less.’”


I was talking to a friend the other day who runs a school for gifted children here, which started from scratch a couple of years ago, and chose equal amounts of boys and girls. “One thing we hadn’t thought of,” he told me, “was that the girls we teach will almost certainly never get married. At least not to Khmer men. Because education isn’t something a Khmer man wants in a wife. And I’m quite conflicted about that.”

Cambodia’s two most famous living women are politician Mu Sochua and charity head Somaly Mam, and both are married, or were, to foreigners. Just sayin’.

Now I don’t have any answers to the problems of this country, and Cambodia is terribly poor and backward. But Thailand is led by a woman (sort of). So it can be done. I’ve just been reading about female kick-boxers here in PP, so perhaps things are changing. But there is an embarrassingly long way to go.


Bits and pieces

November 22, 2013

Without a great deal to write about at the moment, I think I’ll go back to a bit of a round-up of little things that have occurred to me in the past few days, rather than the trenchant political analysis you may have become used to.

Although the opposition CNRP is still refusing to take its seats in parliament, much to everyone’s deepening despair.

It seems like the party is simply holding out for the hell of it, and unless its takes up the seats it justly won back in July, it is doing its voters a disservice. I believe that the ruling party has many questions to answer about the conduct of the election, but the CNRP cannot reasonably expect any gains now; most countries have endorsed the results, and people want to get back to business. But the CNRP is calling for more demonstrations next month: most of the country is getting mightily irritated.

As a measure of quite how crap things can be here, Cambodia (population 15 million) just lost a game of football to Guam (population 159,000).  Not the country’s finest hour.

On the block on which I live, which is, admittedly, fairly central, three new boutique hotels have opened in the past three months, which is a pretty impressive indication of the current speed of change in Phnom Penh. The hotels look pretty nice, although the one opposite our house has a live outdoor band in the evenings, and they fill the night air with syrupy saccharine-sweet Khmer music until the small hours, which is something I could do without. Blossom is seriously unamused. They also advertise that one of their restaurant’s specialities is frog porridge, which is entirely disgusting. I haven’t been in yet.

Frog porridge

I went out today to the site of the amazing CamKids school near Kompong Speu, a couple of hours outside Phnom Penh. They were staking out the site of a new classroom building, and I was there to record the event for the man in America who has, incredibly generously, offered to pay for it all. It is hugely necessary, as the school now has 250 children who get educated, fed, taught basic hygiene, given access to medical care and dental work, given a school uniform and, when they graduate to big school, given a bicycle so they can get themselves there.

Before the school opened, in March last year, none of these kids would have gone to school at all. It is humbling to play even the tiniest part in the transformation of the lives of these kids, and to see their happy little faces. Most of them don’t want to leave the school, and some even try and sleep there at night, as they love it so much. So if you fancy doing something wonderful for Christmas, consider giving CamKids a few quid.  You’d be making a big difference.

Kids playing at the CCC school

Kids playing at the CCC school



Preah Vihear

November 11, 2013

The United Nations has finally ruled on a disputed piece of land surrounding a famous temple in the far north of Cambodia, saying that the Thais must withdraw from the area, as it belongs to Cambodia. At least, that’s what I could work out from listening to the tedious verbiage that the International Court of Justice decorated its decision in – some people are saying that there is still a chunk of land they didn’t rule on.

The temple complex, called Preah Vihear, is miles from anywhere, and not many people get up there: I haven’t yet made it. It is spectacularly located, on the top of a 1,700-foot cliff, and construction began in the ninth century. I’m desperate to go. But it’s quite dangerous: 18 people died in military clashes there in 2011 after the Thais and Cambodians both asserted their sovereignty over the area, and many people expect more fighting this time.

The Bangkok Post is claiming that Cambodia has introduced more than a thousand plain-clothed “temple security guards” armed with AK-47s to the temple complex; this weekend the chief of Cambodia’s military called an emergency meeting after Thai aircraft were seen flying low around the disputed land.

A 1962 verdict by the International Court of Justice declared the temple Cambodian, but didn’t rule on the 4.6 kilometre area surrounding it. Cambodia sought a clarification in 2011, after fighting erupted.

Thanks to the BBC

Thanks to the BBC

Cambodia has a right to get a bit shirty about its neighbours trying to claim its territory. If you go into Thailand from Koh Kong province, you quickly notice how there’s this weird long and thin strip of valuable coastline that is supposedly Thai territory; to the north it’s all Cambodia. And at the other end of the country, visitors to Kep look out over the beautiful island of Phu Quoc, just 10 kilometres from Cambodia and some 40 kilometres form Vietnam, which administers it.

But analysts note that Thailand is in a precarious position, politically. “For Thailand, the ICJ decision on Preah Vihear comes at a critical juncture,” Thai political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak told a local newspaper. “Any change in the status quo would play into the hands and perhaps become the key catalyst of the anti-Thaksin/anti-government protesters in Bangkok. They … could well be for a government overthrow next week if the ICJ rules against Thailand.”

Of course, over the last 1,500 years, the three countries have ebbed and flowed over the maps here as warring kingdoms have advanced and retreated. But Cambodia has suffered more in recent years, and Preah Vihear is an important part of the country’s pride and self-image.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.