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close this bookDevelopment in Conflict - The Gender Dimension (Oxfam, 1994)
close this folderII. Case studies
close this folderA: The impact of armed conflict on gender relations
View the documentCase Study 1: Cambodia
View the documentCase Study 2: Somalia
View the documentCase Study 3: Uganda

Case Study 1: Cambodia

Pok Panhavichetr


For the last 20 years Cambodia has been involved in conflict:
1970-1975: bombing of part of Cambodia by Americans because of Vietnam war
1975-1979: Dictatorship by Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot
1979-1991: Civil war between four factions
1991 onwards: Preparations for election in May 1993.

The social status of women

1 The status and role of women in Cambodian society

As a result of the civil war and hostilities in Cambodia over 20 years, the economic situation of Cambodian women continues to worsen. Women bear exceptionally heavy responsibilities in the socio-economic life of Cambodia. The tragic events of 1970-1979 and the on-going hostilities have left Cambodia with a population in which adult women (above 18 years of age) account for 60-65 per cent of the population.

Since the onset of socialist rule in 1979, official policy in Cambodia has been that men and women are equal. However, in reality women are not valued equally. For instance, women who graduated as engineers often work in the office as book-keepers, typists or tea-makers rather than as extension workers in the factory. In the community, women are not involved in decision-making, men are always stronger and more respected.

Traditionally, Khmer women have always borne heavy responsibilities in society from a very early age. At birth, a girl was sometimes looked upon as a burden to the family and a cause for worry. A daughter can do many more things to embarrass the family than a son. Girls are even compared to pieces of cotton wool, while boys are likened to diamonds, since a diamond can be dropped into mud, picked up and washed clean; however, cotton wool can never return to its original purity once dropped into mud, no matter how much cleaning is done. sisters or helping with household, agricultural and other productive works, until her parents chose a husband for her.

2 Women's economic strategies

When she gets married, a Cambodian woman takes on the important role of wife and mother. As a wife, she handles the family budget and is responsible for borrowing money if the family needs it; she is also responsible for all the housework. While her husband is seen as the breadwinner and usually supervises children's formal education at school, the wife is entirely responsible for their overall upbringing and health and will be held responsible for failure. Most women have to earn money to support the family, in addition to, or instead of, a male wage.

Between 30 and 35 per cent of households are headed by women. Of these, some are widows whose husbands died in the war during the Lon Nol or Pol Pot period, whereas some live with handicapped husbands, some are divorced, and others are single. As in any other country, families headed by women alone experience difficult economic conditions, a situation which is aggravated here because of Cambodia's particularly low socio-economic level. Some women heads of households have to bring up five or six children on their own.

The problem of how to support the family is particularly acute for urban women. Invariably a husband's earnings alone cannot cover the whole of the family's needs. Even government employees have a very low income. Thus all women try their best to earn money even after marriage. Some women who are government employees try to work extra time as a teacher at private schools or engage in another income-generating activity.

The informal sector, i.e. street vendors and market sellers, is almost completely run by women. Women who have capital can run bigger businesses selling gold or running other types of shops. Most women can only run small-scale businesses, such as selling prepared food, sweets, fruit, vegetables, fish or groceries from market stalls or on the pavement. Because of lack of skills or capital for running business, some women hire themselves to wrap candies in private shops, a task for which they are paid only small amounts of money. Some others, especially women heads of households (widows, divorced) have to work in what are considered in Cambodia to be men's jobs, such as construction works or carrying rice sacks or salt sacks at the port. Such unstable work does not allow women to save money, or to mobilise additional resources in order to move on into other business. They are living from hand to mouth, despite the amount of work they put in every day.

In rural areas the majority of women take part in agricultural production, particularly ricegrowing. Women traditionally do most of the sowing, transplanting, harvesting, threshing and storing. Ploughing and harrowing were once tasks which were done by men, but now it is not very unusual to see women behind a plough because some families have no men to do this type of work. In particular, most women-headed households have no draft animals and are obliged to hire a ploughing team, which will first plough its own land before being available for hire, as a result of which women can start rice cultivation only late and therefore produce less. If women have no money to pay for ploughing they engage in 'exchange labour', asking a neighbour to plough their land in return for help with transplanting. One morning of ploughing is repaid by two or three days of transplanting. Alternatively, they have to pay him in cash or rice, which is difficult for the poor. Some poor women hire themselves as agricultural labourers for transplanting and harvesting to get payment in cash or rice.

3 Problems affecting displaced women

Over 100,000 persons are displaced in Cambodia. Displaced women have specific problems. In particular, women-headed households have problems when they have to flee their villages because of shelling or fighting. They have no men to help with carrying children and household goods, and they often have to leave most of their belongings behind. After fleeing they face the problems of having no earnings; sometimes this forces them to go back to their homes, no matter how insecure or unsafe these are, to try to harvest crops and even to stay overnight there, leaving their children behind.

Women who have to flee from their village just after having delivered a baby, often find that their breastmilk production stops, so that they cannot feed their baby.

4 The status of women without male partners

Conflict has led to an imbalance in the ratio of women to men in Cambodia, which is causing a decrease in the value of women. Single, divorced, or separated women and widows do not only lose out economically but are looked down upon and are sometimes open to ridicule in Cambodian society. In the last decade, many single or widowed women have not been able to find a husband because of the shortage of men. They have been faced with the dilemma of either becoming the second or third wife of a man or of remaining alone. This is why some women choose to become second or third '"wives"-a position which is not recognised legally —sharing the father of their children with other women. This obviously makes them emotionally and economically insecure.

After the Pol Pot period, problems with unsatisfying and unhappy marriages showed up among those couples who had been forced to marry by the Khmer Rouge government. Most of these couples have been treated very badly by their parents-in-law, who forced their children to separate in order to marry someone of the family's own choosing. Again, deserted wives are disadvantaged and must choose to remain precariously single or "remarry' into a polygamous relationship.

Traditionally Cambodians take a very strict view of relationships between men and women. It is acceptable for men to have girlfriends, whereas the mere idea of unfaithfulness is unthinkable for women. For example, if a woman who is a government employee 'misbehaves', she may be demoted or deprived of her job, whereas a man will simply receive a warning.

If husbands become handicapped, wives normally continue to live with their husbands as an ordinary family, but handicapped women can often not keep their husbands. They are often left with their children while their husbands marry a new woman, and have to live without support from their husbands, making their lives even more difficult.

5 Prostitution

Casual relations with women and prostitutes outside married life is a usual aspect of urban culture. Until recently, many of the prostitutes in Phnom Penh were Vietnamese women who migrated from Ho Chi Minh city to escape poverty. However, currently there seems to be an increasing number of young Khmer women coming from the provinces to engage in prostitution in the capital. Reasons for prostitution include the need to repay debts, or to support families back in the provinces. While widows or abandoned women have young children to support, war orphans may have to support younger brothers and sisters. The problem of prostitution has become bigger since UNTAC arrived in Cambodia.

6 Solidarity among women

Because of the many years of fighting and the fundamental disruption of communities and families during the Khmer Rouge period, solidarity among Cambodian men and women is very limited. In critical situations, even today, people mainly care for their individual safety and wealth. The forced social organisation during the years of socialism have not helped to improve this situation. As a result, solidarity and mutual trust, which form the basis for mutual assistance among people everywhere, are very weak. This discourages the spontaneous formation of local initiatives and groups for joint improvement of status and living conditions.


Women's position in Cambodia is subordinate to that of men. The war has increased the problems for many women, either by decreasing their value even further as they outnumber men, or by creating serious difficulties in earning a living. Single women, including widows and the handicapped, are pushed to the margins of Cambodian society. Lack of mutual trust and support inhibits the growth of local initiatives and groups to promote gender equity and attack the roots of women's inequality.