Editor’s Note: Catherine V Harry is a women’s rights advocate in Cambodia. She founds a Vblog, A Dose of Cath, that promotes women’s rights and women’s reproductive health. She was named Forbes’ 30 under 30 Asia 2018.
Q: You might be aware that the violence against women is high prevalence in Cambodia, epically the violence against women in the city and urban areas where these women are working or studying. They experience physical and verbal abuses and so on. Why do women experience such violence in the city?
Catherine: the violence against women caused by the perception of the society that doesn’t respect women’s rights. They devalue women and place them as men’s subordinates. These cause many problems because they thought women couldn’t be equal to men. So, whatever happened to women is not important because women aren’t equal men. In some cases, they have seen women as an object—they objectify women. When men see women as an object, they don’t care about abuses against women.
Q: In our society, we haven’t talked openly about women is being a men’s object. Most people said women uphold the value of the family. What do you think about this in reality?
Catherine: They said women are the mother of the world. Some people said Cambodia is the matriarchal society because women manage the family’s finance. We see that men work outside of a home and earn money. Women work at home. Sometimes women work in the informal sector—selling grocery at home, etc. If we look at the top positions in Cambodia, mostly men hold those positions. For example, they said that women are the housewives and they are good at cooking, but most chefs are men. Women can work in those professions, yet men hold leadership positions because they thought men could do the jobs better. In short, men can express their skills and have better chances to get jobs. Some people behind a successful man is a woman, but they don’t say behind a successful woman is a man. Why do they encourage women to support them? Why don’t they encourage women to be successful? Why don’t men stand behind those women and help them to be successful?
Q: Don’t you think that women want this?
Catherine: Some women want this. However, some women were discouraged to get better jobs. For example, there is a phrase in the society that “no one wants women who have high education.” No one wants to marry the women who pursue higher education because men concern that she will be smarter than husbands. This perception discourages women to continue higher educations or get leadership positions. It influences women in a way that they should get simple jobs and allow their husbands to pursue their desired careers. People said that women uphold the dignity of the family. If women do something that is different from society’s expectation, they will be blamed, and their family will be blamed. However, that won’t happen to men. Men can do whatever they wish to do without getting such consequences on their family.
Q: Why do violence against women occur in society?
Catherine: There are many factors. Cambodian culture also causes violence against women. Chbab Srey (CambodianWomen Code of Conduct) is an example. It is not entirely problematic for women, yet some parts of the code disempower women and cause violence against women. However, people think that Chbab Srey is the tradition. Tradition is always right, so women accept it because it is what women have to do.
Q: But a country or a nation depends on the culture and tradition that differentiates us from the rest of the world. When you work to promote women’s rights and to challenge conservative culture and tradition, don’t you think you devalue your nation?
Catherine: The culture in a country is important, but the culture isn’t a rock that can’t be moved. The culture of 2000 years ago is different from nowadays culture. Even though the culture is good for the people at that time, it doesn’t mean that we need to carry that culture forward. We need to observe and examine whether this culture would fit into our nowadays life. We need to revisit it whether it still serves the interests of people. I do not mean that we should forget or neglect this culture. We should keep it in the history book. Also, we shouldn’t encourage people to carry it forward.
Q: How about Cambodian culture that has been practiced hundreds of years? Do you think it serves the interests of Cambodian?
Catherine: The culture served the interests of women in the previous generations. However, some parts of the culture oppress women which caused violence against women.
Q: You mentioned that a culture should be adjusted from generation to generation. And, you said that women should be able to adjust their roles based on generations. We have a phrase that ‘a nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.’ What would you think about that?
Catherine: I think culture is great, but we don’t need to follow all aspects of it. People created culture. It doesn’t exist before human. People in the previous generation created a culture for their time. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to adjust it. The world is narrower these days because of technology and the internet. More or less, the cultures will influence each other. By this, if we integrate other’s cultures into our culture, it doesn’t mean that it will become other’s cultures. It is still our culture, yet it is modernized. We don’t need to forget or neglect our culture. We need to learn about it. We need to recognize that it was what our previous generations practiced. However, we are living in the 21st century, and we want to practice differently.