“Men are gold, women are cloth” – this common Khmer proverb reflects the lowly status women bear in Cambodia, where Women Peacemakers, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner, is working to reduce violence against women.
Women’s subservient standing is buttressed by Cambodia’s “women’s law,” chbab srei, which instructs women to quietly serve and obey husbands as masters, said Amanda Talstra of Talstra, B.C. who is MCC Cambodia peace and justice advisor. Although the “law,” which is a collection of 125 proverbial maxims, was removed from school curriculum in 2008, it is still a “widely shared cultural value” for women’s behavior, especially in rural areas, she said.
In this societal framework, domestic violence is an issue, said Chea Muoy Kry, executive director of Women Peacemakers, an MCC partner. Studies indicate that one in four Cambodian women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, she said. This is similar to the U.S. rate.
Several of MCC’s partners address issues of violence in society and strengthen women’s ability to support their families, but it is Women Peacemakers that addresses domestic violence directly. The group offers trainings on the rights of women and children in rural areas of Kampong Cham province in central Cambodia, the province with the second highest rate of violence against women, according to Muoy Kry.
Both men and women learn about gender roles, domestic violence, sexual violence, marriage relationships, substance abuse and its effects on women and children. Follow-up training includes instruction on resolving conflicts and communicating without violence.
The group also invites district officials, village leaders and local police to trainings. The village leaders tend to handle domestic disputes and divorce, and the police also are interested in learning about conflict mediation and peaceful communication strategies, Talstra said.
Although some situations do involve officials, abuse of women and children predominantly is viewed as a “personal problem,” which, according to chbab srei, should not be spoken of outside the home. Because of this expectation, Muoy Kry judges her organization’s success by baby steps the students report making in their attitudes, behaviors and habits during follow-up visits after the training.
After a recent Women Peacemakers training, participant Chab Udom, a man from Kambas village who came to the training at his mother-in-law’s recommendation, gave this testimony: “I learned I should not be part of the problem. I should be part of the solution and share the lessons learned with other people in my village. I learned about changing bad habits by reducing the amount of alcohol I drink, using peaceful words with my wife and children and patiently listening to their ideas and desires.”
Whether or not participants carry through with such plans, exposure to these ideas is vital to Muoy Kry. “After people hear the message one, two, three times, their thinking is changing,” she said. “It’s easier to change young people’s attitudes.”
For that reason, Women Peacemakers also works with college students, most of them poor rural youth who have received scholarships from their provinces to attend a public university in the capital of Phnom Penh.
The organization hosts trainings for some 40 students each year—about 500 students since 2003—focusing on Cambodia’s criminal and civil law, specifically relating to gender issues, marriage, divorce, domestic violence, sexual violence and other relevant topics.
Boosting students’ confidence and training them to reach out makes it likelier they will work for social change in their communities, Muoy Kry said. Some already teach what they have learned in high schools in their provinces.
“Sixty-five percent of Cambodians are under age 30,” said Talstra. “Women Peacemakers sees working with them as a way to affect the future.”
Emily Will is a freelance writer from Fredericksburg, Md.