Ficha de experiencia Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

octubre 2004

Changing gender relations as a result of conflict in Cambodia

Women’s equality in the red revolution?

Keywords: Ciencias humanas y paz | Internet y paz | Capitalización de conocimientos prácticos (savoir faire) para la paz | Analizar conflictos desde el punto de vista social | Construcción y utilización de la identidad cultural | Autoridades y Gobiernos locales | Asociación local de Mujeres | Reformar las relaciones sociales para preservar la paz | Presentar reformas para un nuevo proyecto de sociedad | Apoyar dinámicas de reconciliación después de una guerra | Reconstruir una sociedad | Reconstruir la cohesión social | Camboya

Conflict description:

Cambodian history is remarkable for its Khmer Rouge civil war during 1975-79. The whole nation was forced into a system where the concept of human rights or personal rights was fully destroyed. From the child to oldest person was ruled under “Angka” (means organization), although a very little people knew how it worked. Everybody was forced to work for an illusion of an agricultural country what ended in brutal civil leaving millions of people especially men killed by own countrymen.

Roles of men and women:

Roles of men and women were significantly changed. Before the war women were dependant on men for earnings, their role was limited to household activities. Female did not take part in social discussion, decision making or problem solving. Men went out for making money for the family and played dominant role in both family and society. The war forced women to actively take part in every work, for example: planting in the fields during rainy season, digging cannels and building dams for irrigation during dry season, washing cloths for soldiers, elder women in silk production group, children bellow 15 years in gardening, fishing, taking care of cattle, boys over 15 and adult men as Khmer Rough soldiers. Families were displaced from the city to town, and they were the most tortured group by the soldiers. People were not allowed to travel from one village to another without permission of village chief. Very few claver people had access to information. Most educated men either higher or lower were taken away from the family, tortured or/and killed. This killing forced the female to take the charge of the household during and after the war. They started growing corps, selling and feeding the family members.

This brought a demographic change to the country as well, the majority of the population is women, and elder are also women. A generation was missing from the history as no baby was born and small children were killed during the wartime. A vast number of women came into prostitution during the time of the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC) period in ’90s because of joblessness and a large number of foreign soldiers. HIV AIDS spread into the society very quickly. The economy was imbalanced; price of everything was much higher than before because of the inflation brought by the UNTAC to the country.

There were no schools during wartime. The teachers were killed. Children were taught only alphabet to know how to read or write their manes, and mainly the philosophy of the ‘Angka’. They were taught how bad the Vietnamese people are. The education process of the Khmer Rough soldiers poisoned the little innocent children’ heart with haterate for them and neighbors. This has significant influence on education system both for female and male. Almost all the school going girls chose to get married after the war, few started job for newly made government. Most men started business. The almost destroyed education system of Cambodia is still not developed comparing to neighboring countries. The manpower is not highly educated like other countries. Instead of being a fundamental right education has become a commodity, and certificate oriented. Because after the war huge amount of foreign aid was poured into the country, numbers of NGOs started working. Lots of job opportunities were available, and there were not enough skilled and educated people to fill in the positions. Seeing the foreigners filling in those positions people became interested in obtaining certificates as quickly as possible to get those jobs. Lots of private schools and universities started different education program, government education become corrupted.

After the war the women are equally participated in the earnings for family, and gradually took the leading positions over decision making. Although it is a question how much power the women actually hold in the society to make change? But it is clearly apparent that women are leading the family, they are more active in work. Now days there are a saying that Cambodian men spend time in playing cards or gambling while women focus on making money for family. In Cambodia all the market and businesses are run by women, men here are helping hand. Women are increasingly coming to official work, government positions, and politics. Many women are leading NGOs although the numbers are not equal to men headed organization.

The war also created a ground for domestic violence. Numbers of research studies showed that the reason for violent attitude of men towards their wife, children and neighbors are their violent role during the war. After the war women undoubtedly got more responsibility and power. The male headed family mostly was changed into female headed one, what could frustrate the men and exposed in their violent attitude?

Changes in identities:

During the war time family members lived in the city was compelled to hide their previous name and occupation otherwise they were killed instantly. People feared to talk teach other in the fear of exposing their hidden information. They learnt to keep quite and not to question to anything. The idea of friendship, neighbor, and love was fully diminished during the four years devastating war. Many rich family became poor overnight and struggled to earn their daily food. Older men and women and small children were easy victim of malnutrition and starvation and death. Children from 5 year to adult were given different role and put in different places. Women were not allowed to see and/or talk to any men. Marriage was arranged by the Angka. Women were given limited freedom to choose their husband. In case of failures of choosing a person from the given choice women were forced to get married with chosen person by the Angka. The most affected women were who were from the city; they were forced to get married with the men from the village. There were no personal rights. At the same time women especially younger were raped by the soldiers. Rights to food, education, health, security, movement were totally abolished. People didn’t have right to access to information and freedom of speech. Both men and women did what they were asked to do; otherwise the ultimate result was death. Everybody’s cloth color was black. Colored cloth was forbidden.

All the eligible people for work were forced to work hard with very little amount of food what was the reason of many death. This put the nationals in a habit of eating without thinking of other family members. The quality of food was bad for what people suffered form malnutrition. The war destroyed the sense of cleanliness. People lost trust on each other, indulged in breaking the laws and regulations. Their importance is on earning money whatever the way is. Corruption has become a part of Cambodian life. People do not want to think differently, express new ideas; they feel comfortable to follow others what might be a result identity crisis.

The need of earning money forced the women to be tuff and might be less emotional to their husband. Although during the wartime they were enforced to start working, but after the war they were more involved into that. Wives are now days mostly emphasizing on earning and savings, what possibly has given men more freedom and lazy. Most of the population is women, and all are responsible for earning their living. Because of less skill and opportunities, increased cost of living, and immoral demand of sex from foreign population coming to the country many women and children were exposed to prostitution. These clearly show the destroyed moral values of life by the war.

Apart from this, women started coming into jobs in private and public sectors, some of them started to be involved in politics especially from rich families. Men were more interested in politics and political parties. Civil society groups started to emerge and work. NGOs in almost every sector of life started to work with the government. Gender balance was focused; women empowerment came into spotlights.

Impact on rights:

As I mentioned earlier the concept of human rights and personal choice were totally destroyed by the war. Women were forced to get married, what still is in practice. For being into the earning for the family women got more power than before in leading and decision making process in the family. Rights of education, health, security and movement were disappeared under the rule of Ongka. Moral values and trust system is destroyed what resulted in present corrupt practices. All the cultural ceremonies were eliminated. After living within very strict controlled rules for years people are still afraid to talk. They are more interested to follow than to lead. They do not fell themselves responsible for the collective betterment of the society, personal gain is the preference.

Education system is one of the most corrupt of the country. Students are forced to pay money to pass the examination, expense is very high. On the other hand they are more interested to obtain certificates. Domestic violence was increased; more women and children were forced into prostitution.

Impact on relationships:

During the war men and women were separated. Children were taken away from the parents and asked to take care of cattle. Husbands were taken away and many of them were killed. The female headed family increased to a large number. Women focused reasonably on earning living for family members. The difficulties of life partly hampered the emotional bonds.

The war certainly gave more power and responsibilities to women. Women demonstrate more power in decision making in the family. They are not very dependent on the husband. As they are the equal earning members they have become more interested in personal enjoyment. They spend their earnings more on their ornaments, gold, cloths, and lands – the possessions what were taken away from them during the war. Children become involved in earning as well what certainly reduced the burden of one person. On the other hand men are more often involved in gambling and womanizing and spending the money what they earn on it.

After the Paris Peace Accord under the UNTAC during early ’90s many international NGOs came and local organization emerged. People become interested to involve in newly appeared political parties. Civil society groups started work. Women came to intuitional jobs, although they were not equal in discussion table. Because of lost trust for each other, cooperative system took time to be organized with the help of international NGOs.


In this paper the author discusses how the roles of women and men have changed due to the war. The war certainly gave more power and responsibilities to women. Women demonstrate more power in decision making in the family. They are not very dependent on the husband.


  • The author of the file is : Ayesha Noor.