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.


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