Aid to developing countries is one of the simplest ideas to sell, and probably one of the most complex tasks to execute effectively. I’ve recently found myself working in gender and development in one of Asia’s most backward nations - Cambodia - and I can’t help having more questions than answers each day about the real priorities in aid.
Cambodia, like most Asian countries, has strict traditions about the way they believe women should behave. In Cambodia specifically, there is a Women's Code - the Chhbap Srey (literally, “Women’s law”) - an unwritten set of instructions taught to girls and boys in the classroom about how a woman should behave, with special focus on her attitude towards her husband.
It is taught as a legend: as the mythical Queen Intravattey instructs her daughter on how to conduct herself upon reaching the world of humans.
Excerpts from a recently written version of the code include the following:
You are to remember that you are the only personal servant of your husband and you should always highly obey your husband. Obey the three fires:
- Take care of his parents properly. Feed and afford them what they want.
- Fulfill the sexual desire of your husband. You should fulfill this task perfectly and don't upset him. You should be humble and don't consider him as equal as you. Do not tell your mother of what your husband asks.
- Don't mind what your husband says. Don't try to revenge or protest against your husband.
You should not touch your husband's head without asking permission or forgiveness. When sleeping, don't turn your back to the husband. If you do so, it seems like a serpent stays up in the house, poisons everyone and separates you from you husband.
Perhaps this sets the social context for what UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women) entered into, when it arrived in 2002: a stack of freshly printed protocols and provisions from the UN gender convention tucked under its arm.
Cambodia signed and ratified CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) in 1992. On paper, Cambodia is an extremely good international citizen. It signs and ratifies most treaties that it is asked to. It doesn't mean that these international treaties make it into domestic law. And if they do, it doesn't mean anything necessarily changes outside on the street.
The experts blame the culture of violence brought about during the reign of the Khmer Rouge for the high levels of rape, domestic violence and trafficking of women that still takes place in Cambodia.
Maybe this is justified. Maybe it’s a good excuse to give to the international community that no one is cold-hearted enough to challenge. The Chhbap Srey would suggest that discriminative attitudes to women hark back to an era prior to the 1975 Khmer Rouge regime.
There is no doubt that gender discrimination, in its excesses, exists in Cambodia. But is our outrage over the gender issue a product of Western privilege?
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