Gender rights: It’s still a power play

Eileen McCormick / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
A female shoe factory worker in Phnom Penh. How does she perceive her reproductive rights? KT/Ven Rathavong

On International Women’s Day, Eileen McCormick argues that in order to reliably work on development for women, one needs to evaluate attitudes and beliefs, face up to cultural norms, and challenge them head on like any other development issue.

Today is International Women’s Day and the time is right to explore concepts like gender mainstreaming.

The percentage of women in formal government positions is still limited. Though Cambodia has improved in this area, compared to other Asean countries, representation is still low. This limited representation of women in the Cambodian government has by default given men the power to decide on appropriate laws, polices, development strategies etc. that dictate and govern those who are less powerful, most notably women and minorities.

It is imperative that men realise that they cannot just simply say they support policies that take gender mainstreaming into account but start to deconstruct their own power and impact on issues such as overall development.

Development implements language and ideology, like gender mainstreaming, without ever dissecting the instructional hierarchies that already exist and why they exist in the first place.

In order to reliably work on development for women, one needs to go to the root level of the problem. This requires one to evaluate attitudes and beliefs held about women, facing up to cultural norms, and challenging them head on like just any other development issue.

This has always been my personal hang-up on gender mainstreaming. The ones who get to dictate what is included in gender and development policies are those in power. This by default is going be biased – benefitting these people or the organisational entities they represent.

Development workers and organisations fail at supporting an atmosphere where women can realise their voice and become their own agents. This is in large part due to the ideology that gender is “their culture”, something that development workers are not supposed to change.

However, this is a catch 22, because development is progress most notably in a positive direction but either way it is change. Healthcare and educational policies are allowed to change despite the impact they may have on culture. The sensitivity most development workers hold (myself included) around culture is that while these other areas can change, “we don’t want to overstep our boundaries and upset the elites in the country when it comes to gender”.

To prove my point, lets dissect reproductive rights – a notable cornerstone of many gender equality programmes. There is an agenda here and what gets implemented in these polices are decided by donor governments – dictating what Cambodia can or cannot do. Last year, the Trump administration reinstated the “global gag rule” that any organisation receiving US funding is prohibited from having anything to do with abortion, even if it is legal in the country.

Either way it’s the pre-existing institutional hierarchy that leaves out positive sex education or things like family planning that also includes infertility issues.

When we talk about rights it should be all inclusive but it’s not. In my time volunteering and working in Cambodia I have come across a number of women who do have trouble getting pregnant and asked for my help. But as many of you who work in the field of family planning know this ideology is to prevent the negative impacts of unwanted pregnancy and its resultant effect on families and society. Please don’t get me wrong. I want people to have access to safe family planning but I think it should expand to include families who face hardship because of not being able to have a child.

I also feel strongly that if we are going to push a curriculum for sex education in schools and in other public spaces it should encompass a sex-positive attitude. We need to teach women and girls to love their bodies and not be ashamed, which may very well impact their understanding of consent when it comes to sex.

Fear and pain have become so imbedded in sexual education programmes globally (even in developed countries), so how is a girl supposed to learn to distinguish when her body is being victimised vs a consensual act? This needs to be included in gender and development programmes.

While I have no doubt that many people are working with the best of intentions to support women, girls and those who identify as females, we, however, need to take a harder look at what we have created and start to work to redefine some of our limiting polices.

I know we are all at a defining moment debating if a little change is better than a radical overhaul. Our best hope for 2018 is that it can be a game-changer for all women in Cambodia – that all their voices will be heard for change to happen.

Eileen McCormick is a writer with Good Times2 – a sister publication in the Khmer Times Group. She holds a Masters in Development Studies from the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

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