We often blame the troubles of the developing world on factors like absence of rule of law, perfidious authorities that look the other way, or continued cycles of poverty. It's easy to sum up the problem from a Western view -- if we had more, things would be better.
But in developing countries facing violence and fragmentation, we must recognize how often the abuse and discrimination toward women and girls results from not only a paucity of resources, but also from deeply ingrained cultural traditions and beliefs. These traditions aren't natural and self-sustaining, nor are they propagated and imposed by men onto women in a unidirectional flow -- gender discrimination and inequality are taught in schools.
The Chbab Proh and Chbab Srey, traditional Khmer prose poems, are widely accepted as codes of conduct for men and women respectively, passed from generation to generation by parents and family, as well as schools and their administrators -- these poems are taught in secondary schools as part of the regular curriculum and reinforced at home.
The Chbab Proh teaches men to be moderate, knowledgeable, and hard working, proactive, productive, and quick, under the premise that men are independent actors in their own lives and in the world, beholden only to themselves. The Chbab Proh instructs men to "walk as dragons" and to be mindful of careless passion -- weakness leads to a man's downfall.
The Chbab Srey, on the other hand, dictates that women and girls exist to serve men, explaining the woman's role in the context of family and home. Women are instructed to be quiet, submissive, deferential, and subordinate to men. They should tread carefully, know their place, and be careful to never overstep any bounds. They are instructed, "[Y]ou should remember to serve your husband. Don't make him unsatisfied, you serve him regularly." Girls learn that it is perfectly acceptable, even expected, to be at the mercy of a man. The result is dangerous -- according to UNICEF statistics, 42 percent of adolescent females in Cambodia believe that wife beating is justified.
The subordination of Cambodian women is not only the result of too few resources or a broken civil society, but of belief systems and traditions handed down from mother to daughter and from father to son. Today, women and girls lack adequate access to education, are more likely to suffer from the effects of poverty, and are often victims of harassment and violence.
As the Executive Director of the Somaly Mam Foundation, I've had occasion to work closely with our partners in Cambodia, a country still bearing the scars of genocide from the Khmer Rouge. A generation after the breakdown of civil society, Cambodia remains in a state of unrest, plagued by extreme poverty, corruption, and lawlessness. It is no surprise that in such circumstances, many Cambodian males have adopted violence as their primary tactic for conflict resolution, and crime as their primary source of income. It is also no surprise that the lives of women and girls are often hard ones, filled with fear, poverty, sexual harassment, abuse, and even slavery.
Gender inequality and abuse in Cambodia will require more than legislation, funding, and accountability measures to overcome. Sure, all of these will help. But as is so often the case in developing countries, a large part of positive social change resides in shifting belief systems, culture, and tradition -- many of which were embraced for stability and structure during complete breakdowns of normal civic society.
If we are to improve the lives of women and girls in such challenging environments, we must meet their populace on their own terms, on equal ground, and with an understanding of the customs and traditions within which they live. While holding close to global goals of equality and freedom, we must remember that achieving them for the long term will require careful and specific local strategies.
I believe that if you don't like the outcome, change the conversation. We are not going to propose the complete and immediate elimination of these poems from Cambodian schools and homes -- that's not realistic, nor is it our right. Instead, we ask that Cambodians examine these poems critically, with a modern and analytical eye and a healthy amount of skepticism. We ask that they consider what they hope their daughters will be when they grow up, what kind of relationships and families they will create, and they will participate in building a better Cambodia. Students should take this as an opportunity to analyze the contents of Chbab Proh and Chbab Srey, to examine its relevant applications, and to understand what a document like that means in the context of an evolving modern society.
The rights and privileges of Cambodian women will only be restored through uniquely Cambodian solutions, ones that are informed by Cambodian tradition and successfully challenge long-held beliefs about a woman's worth and role in society. Only through these kinds of focused and strategic efforts to can we ever enact real change in improving the lives and livelihoods of Khmer women and girls.
Gina Reiss-Wilchins is the Executive Director of Somaly Mam Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to eradicating slavery and empowering its survivors in Southeast Asia and across the globe. To learn more about their work, please visit www.somaly.org.