„Are we doing the right things?"

Ly Pisey at the Women's Conference on Beijing+20 in Cambodia
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Ly Pisey at the Women's Conference on Beijing+20 in Cambodia

Regarding the 1995 Beijing Conference: I was eleven years old at the time, running in a rice field with no idea what the Beijing Declaration was about. First of all, I would like to thank all the big sisters and brothers for your hard work clearing the path until this day, there is so much to learn from you. I will not talk about the good achievements in Cambodia because these have already been raised. While I admire your efforts to fight for whatever you believe in in women‘s rights, I am very sad that the demands are not there based on the viewpoint of this generation.

I think that while we are fighting for women‘s rights, we are not changing in terms of the systematic or structural levels, but rather only on the individual level. For example, the access to education or to health services. Many of us are aware of the privatization of social services, and I‘m not sure that we have addressed this issue! Before, we used to ask how women could gain a better access to quality health care and education, but now we go to the hospital and spend a lot of money. Many Cambodians, up to 70%, are paying out of pocket for health care. Don‘t we think this is a women‘s issue? Why is the government not concentrating on investing public funds on such basic social services, but instead trying to reinforce privatization that takes away all our basic rights? How can we even dream to achieve women‘s rights in this sector while such a policy is there? And how many of us have been criticizing this policy? I have been involved in women‘s rights networks for many years, but are we doing the right things? We are touching so many surfaces but never dig onto the root. And if you can‘t even challenge this, never dream of women having better access to better quality of basic social services. So for me, I don‘t just look at women‘s issues alone, but the services that women deserve are not there. And have you ever heard the Minister of Women‘s Affairs talking about this policy? No. Why not? Probably because she was not informed or has not got the same power as the Minister of Finance.

When we look at gender based violence, the ministry says there has been some progress, but when sex workers are arrested and detained daily in the Social Affairs Center, is this gender-based violence or are you just looking at domestic violence? I don‘t say domestic violence is not an issue, but shouldn‘t we be concerned about the treatment of sex workers, too? While you are talking about trafficking, many people do not consider the rights of consenting adult sex workers who are working hard to make an income to support their family with no protection. Do we have a reliable court system? We don‘t have that! And how many people have been working to improve this system? How can you empower women if they can‘t even file a complaint?

We have been working with Cambodian sex workers, helping them to file complaints. We go to the police station and they say: „Oh it‘s okay; you‘re just a sex worker. You haven‘t been raped or beaten“. Is that fair? I have so many questions. Sometimes I want to give up. I‘m not just challenging my own government, but at the same time challenging development workers who are experts in many fields, but only touching many things at the surface, and then complaining that we are not succeeding. So I‘m not just criticizing the government‘s role, I feel like the donors have contributed a lot to the problems. You throw so much money without knowing what you want. We need money, but we need good money too.

Another issue is economic empowerment or economic control. Cambodia is claiming that the garment industry shows the country‘s economic improvement by having around 700,000 workers, 90% of whom are women, working in garment factories. Why are their working conditions so poor? What is the problem, they are already in the formal sector! This sector has a huge impact on Cambodian economic growth, but why are there such poor working conditions and starving wages? If we cannot even address this sector, how can we even dream to address other sectors? And have you ever challenged the buyers, and foreign factory owners, the big brands companies? They are mostly not Cambodian, but Chinese, South Korean or Malaysian. And if we look at the salaries we will see an increase of 5 dollars in 5 years, so 1 year 1 dollar, and match that with the living cost. Is this a way to improve the economic lives of female workers? I don‘t think so. Almost every day you can read about workers complaining about starving wages.

For me these developments are part of the trends of globalization. You have nothing in the rural areas that is why you move, you migrate in search of opportunities. But at the same time the government doesn‘t care about protecting migrant workers. My hope is to see women from the grassroots getting involved because I can see their frustration. However, we can‘t expect a gentle response, and it will be hard to control because it has been enough.

This article first appeared in "We have come a long way...but there is still a long road ahead". Voices from Cambodia 20 years after the Beijing Conference (1995), published by Heinrich Böll Stiftung Cambodia.