In a rural commune situated along the Mekong river in Kratie province, a group of women with a strong motivation to work for other women`s emancipation come together and decided to engage in activities that could inspire women and offer them new roles and opportunities. They established a network of women volunteers and with the support of a NGO they started small projects to encourage women’s self-confidence and capacities, and help them stepping out of tradition and engage in new roles. When decentralisation made available to women new positions at village and commune level, these women were able to assume these roles; they become leaders within community organisations and in the 2007 commune council elections one of them gained the position of chair of the commune council.
For this reason their experience offered a great opportunity to learn more about the best strategies that women can employ to gain representation in local politics and to analyse what changes such representation can produce among community in terms of gender equality. The research process initiated by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in cooperation with these women started in 2008 and lasted until 2011.
The small group of committed women has centred their capacity building on women’s self-esteem, pursued through specific activities to overcome gender based discrimination and the feeling of being inadequate and incapable that result from it. Little by little other community women have been able to assume new tasks in social organisations, like fishery committees or health volunteers’ networks, or in formal political positions when these become available. The initial group of women grew into a critical mass of women active at various levels within their community.
The leaders` group have gone through a process of reshaping gender roles that has involved their personal sphere and their family’s relations, and has required patience and capacities. By being able to promote changes within their families, convincing husbands to accept wives’ public roles and act consequently, they have obtained the esteem of the community’s women, and have proved that gender roles can be re-negotiated peacefully and with mutual advantages. Their example provides them recognition as trustable leaders by women and men.
During this process, they have been confronted with crises, in particular when community’s access to resources such as forest or water sources, was endangered. In that occasions they took side with the community and engage on the side of the people in a series of initiatives to protect resources and rights. As a result community people acknowledged them as correct and accountable leaders, not corrupt and willing to act and stand up on the side of the people, even when integrated into the mainstream of formal politics. Noticeably, the women leaders have diverse political affiliations, but this has never impeded them to work together.
They have targeted domestic violence, one of the most dramatic aspects of gender discrimination, endemic in Cambodia, by encouraging women to report episodes of violence and look for support and justice, instead of considering violence as a private fact to be endured and hidden within the family. Besides, they have promoted educational activities on women’s rights among the community, and have provided counselling in the most problematic situations. But above all, they have applied the law, treating domestic violence as a severe offence, showing no tolerance toward perpetrators.
Despite these achievements, the community shows also other trends that highlight the difficulties that women leaders have in promoting women’s initiatives and translate representation into action. A series of new problems concerns the community, to which there are no solutions in the short term. Lack of land and resources affects many families, and the strategies to cope with the crisis generated by that have important gender aspects, in particular unsafe migration of men and women in search of employment. Family bonds become more fragile, exposing women and their children to abandon and increasing the number of single mothers whose livelihood is at risk of falling into poverty. Migration of girls to Malaysia to work as maids or workers is spreading across the nation. Poverty is a major push factor, but also media campaigns by the recruitment agencies and the perception of government acknowledgment of the practices of those companies facilitate migration. Women leaders find themselves bare handed, because the decentralisation process did not yet devolve locally the power and the tools to deal with these problems. Local women leaders draw on their integrity and they be on the side of the people, but around them the leadership’s models are based on patronage and corruption, and community women’s trust is increasingly affected by that.
Moreover, institutional gender mainstreaming programs have gained momentum, shifting the focus from gender discrimination and the need to act for gender equality, to a generic discourse, which equate gender with “women’s and children’s affairs”, very often interpreted as health care, child care, hygiene and sanitation. This discourse is extended through meetings, trainings and forums, without further analysis or critical perspectives that may help women leaders to elaborate policies and strategies in favour of women. The fact that even NGOs are now following the mainstream instead of developing alternatives, contributes to weaken women’s leaders initiative. In fact, in the last year, some of the activities in the community seem to be less influential or not adapted to the new context; community organisations are less active and their representatives have not been replaced by younger women, who tend to engage less in social and political activities.
The case shows that important results in terms of women’s participation in social life and decision making can be achieved by mobilising women, build networks and focus on self-confidence and awareness of discrimination. It also stresses the relevance of leaders’ accountability and example. By adopting strategies that empower women, increase their ability to utilise their rights, and enforce the law, it is also possible to reduce violence against women. But these results need to be secured and the strategies need to be constantly reviewed and elaborated to respond to new problems and challenges. Left without support women leaders can get lost in the conservative agenda managed by institutional gender technocrats, and risk to loose the capital of trust they have worked so hard to establish. This will resound among grassroots women, weakening their participation and impairing their capacities to stand up for gender and social justice.