A drawing depicting a Cambodian literary classic, Tum Teav. Illustration by Khun Sovannarith.

In traditional Khmer society, social behaviors and interactions were guided by Chbab, or codes of conduct. The Chbab Srey and Chbah Pros, codes of conduct were created for Cambodian women and men. While Chbab Srey calls on women to be gentle and shy, not leave the house and never challenge their husbands, no matter how much he might curse them. Chbab Pros describes men as decision makers with strong/firm character and as caretakers. These very restrictive rules promoted unequal gender relations whereby women would always be subservient to men. In a society that is built on strict hierarchies, the placement of women beneath men has had significant consequences in all aspects of personal and professional life. Unfortunately, the spirit of the Chbab Srey and Chbab Pros lives on today.

It is certainly true that rapid socio-economic change is affecting women's position in society, but at the same time, many Cambodians seek to reclaim the pre-Khmer Rouge past. This has created dual pressures on women; to join the market economy while not losing traditional values of subservience and passiveness. For some, women who challenge these values are perceived to be challenging Khmer culture itself.

As a result, women remain largely marginalized in the Cambodian workplace. Women earn less than men for the same work, and are woefully underrepresented in management positions and high-status positions like doctors and lawyers. Even upon achieving a management position, women's attempts to lead are often undermined by cultural prejudices and cultural hierarchies that refuse to recognize the women's status and authority. Harassment of women is also an everyday reality in Cambodia, especially at the work place and in educational grounds. It is not uncommon for professors to begin class with sexual jokes. In addition, harassing behavior is a significant part of many work relationships.

Although Cambodia's laws and policies are now largely in line with modern understandings of gender equality, cultural norms and the weak rule of law have hindered the realization of equality for women. Even the term gender is relatively new in Cambodia, appearing in conversational usage in the past decade or so. The term however, which in Khmer is simply "yenda," is still unknown to many Cambodians and those most likely familiar with the term, city residents who have had greater exposure to international media and organizations, do not understand or misunderstand it. The Sleuk Rith Institute recognizes these challenges and will not tolerate such behavior.

Vanthan Peoudara