Statistics recently gathered from villages in different parts of Cambodia suggest that women, including tens of thousands of widows, comprise a disproportionate majority of the labour force—in some places up to two-thirds—and at least fifty-five per cent of the overall population. This demographic imbalance, heavily concentrated amongst the younger adults, poses major problems for people struggling to regain normality in their lives. Moreover it adds significantly to the stresses and responsibilities traditionally borne by Khmer women. From numerous interviews in various regions, a picture emerges of the centrality of women in the survival and reconstruction of Cambodian society. Khmer women are usually very reticent when talking about their status in the family, but today’s burden is so obvious and striking that some come out openly and say that they are ‘the backbone of the family’. Historically, Khmer women were systematically devalued as inferior beings while at the same time being assigned a much heavier share of labour, domestically and in the rice fields. Cambodia’s Buddhist culture encouraged female participation in the ‘defiling’ activities of commerce, while it reinforced sexual prejudices. From birth a girl was often looked down upon as a burden to the family. A Khmer girl was proverbially compared to a piece of cotton wool; a boy, to a diamond. If a diamond is dropped in the mud, it can be picked up and washed as clean as before, but cotton wool, once it has fallen into mud, can never be restored to its original purity, no matter how much cleaning is done. Mud is nothing grandiose. There would not be any ‘mud’ at all if parents did not consider falling in love a crime for a girl, let alone having a sexual relationship or getting pregnant before marriage. But Khmer parents usually advise their son against marrying a girl who falls in love with him before the wedding night. From infancy a Cambodian girl is trained to be different from a boy. She is supposed to be more gentle in every action: sitting, standing, speaking—a nice girl is one who makes no sound when walking on a wooden floor.

In the countryside girls rarely completed primary education. Where there was no school, only the pagoda offered the rudiments of literacy, and their enrollment was limited to boys—since students were taught by Buddhist monks who are not allowed to be close to women. In the towns even middle-class families frowned on their daughter’s advancement, and despite any educational achievements, the usual injunction remained, ‘she’ll get married and have children anyway’. From the 1950s, a small number of Khmer women managed to obtain higher education, but it was usually as the result of their own initiative and stubborness.

Most families in Cambodia have more than four children, sometimes as many as twelve. When grandparents and uncles and aunts are around, the pressures of such numbers are shared. But today, there are many widowed mothers struggling to bring up four or five children on their own, while also being the main source of the family’s livelihood. The acute pressures need no emphasis. Some look for outside support, such as by becoming the mistress of a man who can offer them financial aid or social support. It is hard to blame them after the trauma they have been through. Such licence is greater in the city, where a bit of freedom and sexual liberty is needed to help build a new life. ‘Men in the cities are very cunning’, one women told me. ‘they know what we want. They offer us what we need. After a while we get sucked in.’ Both men and women are excited by the sexual opportunities they possess nowadays, as these were largely suppressed during the Pol Pot time. In addition some look for new partners because of what happened to them then. Under Pol Pot husbands and wives were separated or given little time together.

In addition there is a legacy of unsatisfactory partnerships brought about by the Pol Pot administrators, when they arranged obligatory marriages. Young men and women were asked to attend a meeting and were then married on the spot. Some partners were lucky enough to be married to someone they liked or came to like. Others had to live with it for two or three years and only now have freedom to request a separation from their unchosen partners. But this sometimes causes a big fuss, because women know that they are in a disadvantageous position. They know that it will be hard for them to find another partner, or to raise children by themselves in the present very tough economic situation. When I visited a district office in Kandal province there were two cases before the district officer concerning couples who were married during Pol Pot’s time. The two wives have been treated very badly by their parents-in-law, who wanted their sons to separate from the women in order to marry someone else they approved of. The parents too felt deprived because the marriage system in the Pol Pot period prevented them from having their traditional say in the choice of their offspring’s partner.

For single women and widows the demographic imbalance has made finding a husband even more difficult than getting rid of one. Khmer women are often very shy, but I have met many who told me that there are simply no single men around to choose from. One woman working with a foreign aid agency said to a relief worker: ‘I wish you would bring a shipload of men instead of food!’ Other Cambodian women have been heard to complain of how ‘expensive’ men are these days. Apparently a leading member of the Women’s Association has even suggested that men should be allowed to have two wives. This is illustrative of the desperate plight of women, particularly that of unmarried women of around thirty years old, who will probably never be able to marry (for younger girls there are more men). In the countryside the situation is somewhat better than in the towns because there is more solidarity between women. Working side by side in the fields, they know what others are doing and little can be hidden. In response to my question about having two or three wives, a group of peasant women said: ‘No, a man can’t feed two or three wives, it is hard enough to have one wife. In no way would we allow him to get away with that.’footnote1

The legacy of a shattered society places onerous economic and psychological burdens upon women. Women are the major force. What are they doing?

The majority of the Khmer population, and thus the majority of women, are engaged in agricultural production. Rice growing is their main task, for which women traditionally do most of the sowing, transplanting, harvesting, threshing and storing. Ploughing and harrowing were once tasks exclusively done by men, but now it is not very unusual to see women behind a plough. In villages along the Mekong river, women also look after their chamcars where they grow fruit and vegetables, which they take to the market in the morning, later bringing home meat or fish, clothing or other household needs. Every household has a private plot where they are encouraged to grow fruit, vegetables, and quick yielding industrial crops, such as cotton or jute for the general economy. Many households raise small animals, such as chickens, ducks or pigs, as well as draught animals, whether water-buffalo or oxen. While children usually have the job of tending animals, and take them to pasture or to water, feeding pigs is most frequently the task of young women. It may sound easy. In fact they have to slash down banana leaves and trunks, and other greens, then cook the crude vegetation with rice husks, or some broken rice, for a long time, stirring the heavy, steaming mixture, which once cooled, can be fed to the pigs. When these reach a reasonable weight, they are sold to the local butcher, to make a significant contribution to the family revenues. Peasant women and girls sometimes go fishing for family consumption, although this important but relatively sedentary task is most often fulfilled by men. When fish are in season (after the main farming period) the women make prahoc, a strong fish sauce. The work involves getting extra fish, cutting and washing them, putting on salt, and stuffing the mixture into large earthenware jars, which have to be properly wrapped. The preserved fish is thereby conserved for the rest of the year and used as the main diet in the busy farming season when there is little time to prepare food.