The Situation of Women in Cambodia


Cambodia is considered to be a post-conflict society where the roots of many contemporary problems lie in the country’s tumultuous history. Juxtaposed between Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia has long been insecure and vulnerable to foreign territorial ambitions. The most prolonged experience of occupation was under the French colonial administration, which lasted for nearly a century until the French relinquished their Indochina colonies in the 1950s.

Sovereignty was then restored under the monarchical regime of Sangkum Reastre Niyum led by King Sihanouk. This brief period of reconstruction was undermined by Cambodia’s geographic proximity to the ideological fault line that ruptured in Vietnam between the USA and North Vietnam’s Communist allies. Cambodia became the secret battleground for these contending forces, which resulted in internal instability culminating in a military coup led by General Lon Nol in 1970. This heralded a thirty-year period of constant upheaval and civil war including the genocidal regime of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea (DRK) lead by Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979, and then Vietnamese occupation. Protracted negotiations sponsored by the United Nations finally led to the Paris Peace Agreement of October 1991 and the subsequent May 1993 elections.

In the first multi-party elections in 1993 FUNCINPEC, led by Prince Ranariddh, won a 45% majority of the vote but was coerced into an uneasy coalition with the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Hun Sen. Nevertheless, the process of political reconstruction began with the establishment of a National Assembly and the signing of a national Constitution by Prince Sihanouk. This act signalled the end of a twenty-three year interregnum and re-institutionalised a constitutional monarchy. Despite a structural semblance to fledgling democracy, Cambodia suffered further unrest as Khmer Rouge Guerrillas perpetuated conflict in the countryside that would continue until 1999.

In 1997, Khmer Rouge defections became one of the final divisive elements that fractured the unstable political coalition. Widespread violence erupted in Phnom Penh and throughout the country in July resulting in injuries, death and disappearances. In an atmosphere of turmoil and lawlessness, Hun Sen was able to stage a coup d’etat and banish Prince Ranariddh into exile. Little over a year later, international and national observers declared the July 1998 national elections as ‘free and fair’ on the day and Hun Sen remained in power as the sole Prime Minister. In practice the pre- and post-election period was marked by intimidation and violence that continued into mid-September.

Since the first elections of 1993, Cambodia has struggled to come to terms with its past and establish a sound basis for democracy and the protection of human rights for its citizens. At the turn of the new millennium incremental progress was being made and the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) initiated a process of decentralisation that culminated in the first commune elections in 2002. Hun Sen’s CPP achieved a landslide victory winning nearly 1,600 of the 1,621 commune appointments throughout the country. Although not up to international standards, the elections were viewed by CPP as a victory for Cambodian democracy judged by the abysmally low benchmark set by previous elections. Unfortunately, they were not a triumph for gender equality since the major political parties refused to accept a proposed 30% quota system for women candidature.

The most recent elections of 2003 enjoyed a high voter turnout despite being mired in politically motivated violence. The CPP again won a majority of votes but not the two-thirds required by law to govern alone. A coalition government needed to be formed but a political deadlock of eleven months followed as parties wrangled for control of powerful ministries and debated fundamental policies. During this time, Cambodia did not have a functioning legislature and the passage of vital legislation such as draft bills on domestic violence and trafficking was stalled.

Five years after the final capitulation of Khmer Rouge forces in Cambodia, inter- and intra-state controversy still surrounds the inauguration of a tribunal. In order for Cambodia to truly engage in the process of reconciliation, reconstruction and peace building, some resolution must be reached in regards to this tribunal.

The legacy of prolonged violent unrest poses significant and sui generis challenges for Cambodia today. The fabric of embryonic civil society is threaded with deep-seated insecurity and worsening poverty.3 A culture of impunity that grew during the years of unrest continues to hamper the state apparatus and exacerbate corruption at all levels of the administration. These systemic problems make it especially difficult for women to ensure they are afforded equality in a society where traditionally women are subservient to men. Beyond counteracting the embedded cultural stereotyping of women, the most exigent problems facing Cambodian women today are increasing gender violence, exploitation and poverty.

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