Friday, May 11, 2007

Is there a women's movement?

We visit a maternal hospital, strikingly modern by Cambodian standards, built not by their own government but by the Japanese. There are low wooden ceilings and wooden benches, where the expectant mothers watch instructional videos and pop Thai TV while they wait their turn. It is 5000 rial for the first visit, the equivalent of about $4.25 US currency, and it is a prohibitive sum for many.
Four hundred and fifty out of every 100,000 women in Cambodia die in childbirth; a rate 10 times higher than the U.S. We learn that UNFPA has significantly reduced the rate of maternal mortality in 8 countries, but in Cambodia much help is still needed.
At the Ministry of Women's Affairs that afternoon, they tell us that 52% of Cambodia's 13 million citizens are women, but that they are much poorer than their male counterparts. Although women make up 74% of the labor force, they are also far more often in low-paying jobs. It is a theme reflected in the highest echelons as well. At the Ministry of Women's Affairs, 700 of the 850 employees are women. That percentage is far smaller in other government bureaus. The Ministry receives only 5% of the government's budget, with the highest portions going to agriculture, industry, telecommunications etc. So has the government, too, forgotten?
Gender mainstreaming is a priority right now, they tell as at the Ministry, and legal rights, but the biggest obstacle they face is the limited resources they receive. There are lofty goals to change social norms, to alter the fact that most decision-making now lies with men. It is a part of the national strategy to say that women are the backbone of economic development and stability, they tell us. I listen for what they don't say, for the stories of sex trafficking and inadequate access to skilled birth attendants and gender inequality. "Is there a women's movement in the country?" a delegate asks pointedly. Not really, they admit.
"How much money would you need to cover your work in all the provinces?" another delegate pries. $30,000 a year would fund all their work in eight provinces they suggest.

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