Through orange-coloured glasses: saying “NO” to gender-based violence

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This Friday, we’re donning a very familiar colour and going ORANGE to take a stand against violence against women in Cambodia and around the world. Mary Grimwade explains what we’re up against and how we’re going to beat it.

In the lead-up to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November, Sunrise Cambodia is taking a stand against gender-based violence in Cambodia. Orange is our colour and, conveniently, this matches the official orange hue that signifies this global day of awareness. We’re already firm fixtures on the bandwagon to ‘Orange the world’, a goal that drives the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s UNiTE campaign to end violence against women across the world.

With a bright orange outlook on the future, Sunrise Cambodia’s community development programs maintain a zero tolerance policy towards violence against girls and women and actively work to tear down structures and ideas that allow gender-based violence to continue in Cambodia.

What we’re up against

Too many Cambodian women live a horrifying reality.  A study by ActionAid in 2014 followed the experiences of 380 Cambodian women including garment workers, university students, sex workers and beer promoters. They found that 77% of these women commonly experience verbal violence or harassment, a quarter of them deal with physical harassment on a frequent basis and 21% have endured violent physical attacks.

The gritty realities of domestic violence in Cambodia are all too clear in a research report by Katherine Brickell written in 2014 that records local women speaking out about community- wide abuse. For Sidaneth from Pursta, poverty was a catalyst for the violence she experienced at the hands of her spouse ‘I really think poverty pushes people to the edge…only when things around the housing are lacking do you see cases of spouses becoming easily agitated and prone to violence…’. For a country where a huge proportion of the situation are living under the poverty line, this news is terrifying.

The scariest thing is, women in Cambodia are almost unanimous in their belief that domestic violence is something to keep to themselves. Out of the 1,177 people that Brickell spoke to, 75% of women believed they should remain silent about the violence or tolerate abusive partners to keep the family together. Over half of the men she spoke to actively enforced this culture of silence. An environment that is safe for women can only be achieved when these cultural attitudes are torn down.

Why do these attitudes towards gender-based violence exist?

During the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) the traditional Khmer hierarchy was destroyed and cultural practices were desecrated. After this period of destruction there was a nation-wide goal to rebuild traditional Khmer customs and re-establish the conventional way of life. The Khmer people grasped for commonalities that could bring them back together and landed on old traditions that pre-dated the Khmer Rouge as well as French colonisation. Outdated gender expectations and roles were at the forefront of creating a shared identity in post-war Cambodia.  40 years on in present-day Cambodia there is still a significant amount of value placed on tradition, even the ones which would be better left for dead.

A 2013 study by the UN on violence against women in Southeast Asia found that 96.2% of men and 98.5% of women believe that a woman should obey her husband even when he has abused her. Let’s take a minute to put those emotionless percentages aside and look at what this means: almost every grown woman and man in Cambodia thinks that men should have full control over women.  What’s worse, this belief does not change even if that man has treated that woman with contempt, disrespect or outright violence. How are these beliefs still accepted in 2016?

Men are gold and women are fabric

This popular Khmer proverb goes a long way to explaining where these gender-based beliefs comes from and how the entrenched double-standards that promote male power and silence female voices are preserved in Cambodia today. The expectations set in this proverb are that women, ‘fabric’ can become soiled through pre-marital sex or promiscuity. They are considered broken and useless in the public eye. On the other hand, ‘Gold’ men continue to remain valued and untarnished irrespective of their sexual activity outside marriage. This paints a clear picture as to why violence against women is still tolerated in Khmer society and the huge societal shift that has to occur if women can ever live without fear of violence in Cambodia.

'women are clothe" gender violence in cambodia

Sunrise Cambodia are helping to eliminate these prejudicial attitudes and assist locals to embrace new progressive approaches in order to establish a society free of gender-based violence.

Striding Toward a Future of Equality

A huge factor in the structural inequalities between men and women in Cambodia is the economic dependence that women have on men in the household unit.  Women often cannot speak out about abuse because they are forced to rely too heavily on their male partners to financially support them and their children. Like countries the world over, men make up much of the workforce in Cambodia and the jobs that women hold are predominately low paying jobs such as carers, cleaners and factory workers. Add in the lack of childcare and maternity leave in Cambodia and you have the perfect recipe for economic dependence. Sunrise Cambodia is well aware of this trend which is why our programs emphasise female empowerment and economic independence. By putting young girls through school as well as providing after school programs for further education and vocational training of young women, Sunrise is giving Cambodian women the skills and confidence they need to walk away from abusive relationships or instances of domestic violence and not fear for the future of their children or themselves.

Sunrise social workers run counselling and family planning programs which focus on giving women the skills to make informed decisions about marriage and having a family. These counselling programs also help men recover from drinking and gambling, habits that contribute to the prevalence of household violence in Cambodia.

We’re also thinking outside the box, so to speak. Our current Christmas appeal, ‘Crappers for Cambodia’ is raising funds to put toilets in homes and schools. At first glance, dunnys have nothing to do with violence against women, but dig through the stink and you’ll uncover a totally different story.

When a loo is installed in a family home, instances of sexual abuse drastically drop. Why? Because women are no longer forced to tip-toe through the village after dark to find a private place to relieve themselves. A loo in a home takes away the risk of a night-time predator and a society that judges the woman for her own abuse. Likewise, when a girls toilet block is built at school, girls are more likely to finish highschool. How? It’s not rocket science – girls aged 13, 14, 15 don’t want use the same loo as teenage boys when they’re going through puberty and getting their period. At that time in their lives it seems way easier to just stay home from school rather than to deal with a gaggle of teenage boys every time they want the ‘luxury’ of a lavatory.

A member of the Cambodian Young Women Empowerment Network Dany Sum says ‘from the day we are born we have less value than men’. This must change. And it will.

The young women who are coming through Sunrise schools, community development programs and even working for us are strong, fearless and independent. If anything can stop a nasty culture of domestic violence, it is the strong chorus of female voices saying “enough is enough”.

Help Cambodian women by wearing orange on International Day for the Elimination of Violence, 25 November, and making a donation to Crappers for Cambodia – install a toilet in a home and changing lives. 

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