Cotton Wool And Diamonds

new internationalist
issue 242 - April 1993

Cotton wool
and diamonds
Conflict has made Cambodian women the majority of the population but left their status unchanged.
Chanthou Boua describes the heavy burden of survival that has fallen upon them.

A Cambodian girl used to be compared to a piece of cotton wool and a boy to a diamond. A diamond, when dropped into mud, can be washed as clean and sparkling as before, while cotton wool can never regain its purity once it has been dirtied. The ‘mud’, to a traditional Cambodian, could be simply the act of falling in love. Cambodian parents usually advise a son against marrying a girl who falls in love with him before the wedding night, because girls who might engage in premarital sex are considered beyond redemption.

The discrimination against women in Cambodian culture became even more difficult for those women who emerged from the horrors of ‘Pol Pot time’, which killed more than a million Cambodians by starvation or execution. Because women survived the starvation better than men they are now a disproportionate majority of the labour force. Women were also sometimes spared the political slaying because they were considered less threatening to the regime than their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. In villages and districts of Cambodia today, up to 65 per cent of the population – and 70 per cent of the able-bodied population – are women.

Women are the dominant economic group – while still being the ‘cotton wool’ of this patriarchal society. They are often the main breadwinner in a household, run most small businesses and are a major force in agricultural production. It is primarily women who have borne the brunt of more than a decade of international economic sanctions, and it is women whose livelihoods – and lives – have been jeopardized by the recent UN-sponsored ‘peace’ agreement.

The post-Pol Pot Communist government managed with few resources to return Cambodia’s social, cultural, and economic life to a respectable level, however poor. Cambodians once again could send their children to schools, earn a living, buy their food in markets, and practise Buddhism, all of which were prohibited during the Khmer Rouge period. Collective farm policies especially helped widows with young children; this system ensured an equal share of produce for women who were then neither materially nor physically equipped for farming – it gave them time to get on their feet again.

Despite all the back-breaking work of women, poverty is still widespread, especially among the almost 40 per cent of families headed by women; studies over the last 13 years have revealed that women remain consistently among the poorest in every village. Most of the Cambodia’s 8.5 million people live below the poverty line with an estimated per-capita income of $110. This is a country perennially short of food. There is no supply of clean water and not enough medicine. US-made equipment ranging from tractors to shovels could not be purchased by (or donated to) Cambodia; tools, irrigation pumps, draft animals, vaccines for animals and fertilizers have been very difficult to come by. This lack of basic infrastructure causes one fourth of Cambodian children to die before the age of five. Raising children in such circumstances is a daunting task.

Living in Prey Veng province, Yung is a 50-year-old widow who has brought up six children, now aged between 16 and 32. They all lived through ‘Pol Pot time’. Her husband was arrested and killed with five other villagers by the Khmer Rouge forces in 1976, when her sixth child was only one month old. Soon after, her three eldest children were also taken away. She bravely raced to the warehouse where they were being held, and demanded that the Khmer Rouge kill her first if they were going to kill her children. As a result of her protest the children were later released.

Yung and her three younger sons now live in a shack built of palm leaves. Her previous and more substantial house, which had been built by her husband, was dismantled by Pol Pot’s forces. A few years ago one of her sons joined the army and injured his right arm in a battle against the Khmer Rouge. Around the same time, her youngest son contracted measles and, lacking medicine, became blind. Her other son is in his teens and is at school. As the war goes on she nervously enjoys his company and assistance around the house.

Rice farming has been Yung’s main occupation. She explains that during the rice-growing season, ‘We are busy non-stop for four months. This includes three months of regulating the supply of water using a rohat (a hand-operated device). We wake up very early in the morning, cook rice and pack our lunch, walk for one hour to the field, and are ready to start work at six. We don’t get home until five or six in the evening. Friends and relatives usually feed us.’

Friends and relatives play an important role in Yung’s life. They are the ones who help her with the heavy work such as ploughing the fields or repairing her house. But still, she has to do many other tasks herself, including patching the roof of her house, making axe and knife handles, raising dikes and driving an ox-cart.

Rice production has been insufficient for her family to live on, and each year she faces the same problems of not having enough fertilizers, insecticides, seeds, equipment or irrigation pumps to boost her production. To make ends meet Yung sells cakes, gathers firewood and tends her coconut, palm sugar and banana trees.

Yet despite the responsibilities of women like Yung, the Cambodian woman is still expected to behave in accordance with the wishes of her family. She is expected to be more gentle and softly spoken than a man and do more work around the house than her brothers. She is not encouraged to stay in school or to make decisions about her future. Cambodian women are usually reticent when talking about their status, but the burden they carry is so striking that some have come out to say they are ‘the backbone of the family’.

One result of the sex-ratio imbalance is that polygamy, although illegal, is quite widespread, especially in the cities. City women, widowed or single, feel vulnerable living alone and are socially, financially and emotionally pressured to accept partners, even married ones. Many children are born outside wedlock. The polygamous match itself usually ends disastrously with women fighting for the one man. Divorce is legal, but is not easily accepted socially. So many women endure the life of an unhappy marriage, knowing full well that the competition for men is fierce. All in all, the situation is favourable for men and many of them exploit it.

In the countryside this is less common. Working side by side in the field, they know what others are doing and little can be hidden. Also, as a peasant woman put it to me: ‘A man can’t feed two or three women; it is hard enough to have one wife. In no way would we allow him to get away with having more.’

Chanthou Boua was born in 1952 in Kompong Cham province, Cambodia, the eldest of eight children. Her father was a village schoolteacher. The family moved to Phnom Penh in 1963. After attending Phnom Penh University she moved to Australia and gained degrees in economics, education and sociology from the University of New South Wales, Melbourne State College and the University of Wollongong. In 1975 her parents and brothers and sisters were expelled from the capital by the Khmer Rouge and returned to their native village. In 1977 and 1978 the entire family of nine was massacred by Khmer Rouge forces. Boua is author of Children of the Killing Fields (University of Wollongong Centre for Multicultural Studies, 1990) and co-editor of Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981 (London and New York, 1982), and of Pol Pot Plans the Future: Confidential Leadership Documents from Democratic Kampuchea, 1976-77 (Yale Southeast Asia Council, 1988). She has worked on various aid programmes in Cambodia since 1980 and now lives in the US.

A serious problem for Cambodian women is the spread of AIDS. In a country whose poverty is so widespread, especially among women, the injection of 21,000 UN officials and thousands of Thais and other Asian entrepreneurs is a risk. Cambodian women with very little knowledge of AIDS and desperate for a living, are going to be the target of this fatal disease. Detected HIV cases increased from one in 1991 to over 60 in 1992. ‘Peace in exchange for AIDS’ is no fair deal.

Despite the truce, Khmer Rouge attacks on villages have escalated. The Khmer Rouge also stir up racial antagonism against ethnic Vietnamese to the brink of explosion. On 21 July in a small village in Kampot province near the Vietnamese border, an ethnic Vietnamese couple and their seven-day old son, four other children aged seven to 16 – Cambodians whose grandmother was Vietnamese – and their uncle, were all massacred and mutilated by Khmer Rouge gunmen. On 27 December seven Vietnamese females and six males, and two Cambodians were summarily executed by the Khmer Rouge.

No Cambodian political parties or human rights organizations dare speak out against these atrocities. It is perceived as too politically costly. But they forget that the Khmer Rouge, when in power between 1975 and 1978, killed their own people for having ‘Vietnamese heads on Khmer bodies’. The phenomenon is certain to recur if the Khmer Rouge return to power. In fact the UN should take responsibility for such atrocities, because the UN Security Council legitimized the Khmer Rouge, knowing well their anti-Vietnamese hysteria.

The UN must do something quickly to stop more killing of innocent women and children, Vietnamese or Cambodians. The UN peace plan has spent billions of dollars but little of it helps the people of Cambodia with roads, fertilizer, irrigation systems, clean drinking water, health or training, all of which are important factors in restoring stability to Cambodia and a successful search for democracy. Aid is an important factor in a developing country such as Cambodia, where many people are still concerned about their next meal. Democracy cannot take root among people with empty stomachs. It is obvious to visitors that the people’s living standard is so low – especially in the rural areas and especially among women – that they can easily be intimidated by political parties. Women are going to be an important factor in the coming election, since they are the majority. True democratic elections, successful development and therefore peace require the involvement of women in every field and at every level.


Hear no evil
Fear has ruled Cambodian life for 20 years,
but Ritta believes it can be challenged by solidarity.


Candle light intensifies the large dark eyes of the young woman as she talks of her dream for her village. She is not well educated but alert and thoughtful. Her brown curling hair brushes against the handmade lace collar of her soft blouse. Her feet are bare inside the house of course, but she wears with neat precision the tight skirt, the locally-made sombot.

I look at the photographs framed against the bare wooden wall, for I know well this family in their Svey Reing village. The honoured image is of aupuk (the father), executed in Pol Pot times simply because he was the widely respected teacher, the most educated man in the village. Ritta was six at the time. She remembers most of all that the family dared not weep when the news of father's death was whispered to them. Spies who were watching for tears were ready to denounce the whole family as traitors. I watch her forthright expression, her graceful gestures. If the man who looks down from the photograph could see her now he would indeed be proud.

The widowed mother has never managed to climb from poverty to educate the six children to their potential. Simply to sit for an examination costs thousands of riels which the family can never find. But the qualities of the parents live on in the children. Ritta has received a heritage of intelligence and wisdom. Her aupuk is remembered with respect throughout the district even now, and many women and men come to her mother for wise advice. The spirit of this family has not been quenched in all the hardship of the last 20 years.

Ritta is firm in her assessment of Cambodia's main problem. She gains confidence as she speaks and her voice is strong with conviction. 'Most of our people are so poor that the hearts of all must be moved with pity. But the rich do not care about the poor. Sometimes even the people of the village do not help one another. My mother told me of the way people trusted and helped one another when she was young. But the terrible times broke down the trust. The people must make a new solidarity.'

Ritta's own short life has seen this breaking of trust. While she was a very small girl army convoys with supplies for the communist forces in nearby Vietnam came trundling through the village. The people were warned that they must stay inside their houses after dark: 'Hear no evil. Speak no evil. See no evil.' But the small boys watched from the sugar palms as small boys will. The village knew. And the fathers and mothers had their opinions, but most dared not talk.

Soon the Americans bombed the ferry crossing close by. 'Hear no evil.' Then came the Khmer Rouge and the spies. For fear of life, of course, you could not talk. After the liberation, the conscription and still the fear of spies. And now, this year, the year of the elections, fear, fear, fear. The whole authority of the United Nations could not put things together again. Ritta and her mother are disappointed. They had hoped. I watch them as they lean forward in the flickering light, talking softly. 'Clat.' Fear. I am thinking: 'All the king's horses and all the king's men have not been able to mend it.'

But Ritta does not give up easily. 'The Cambodian people must do this for ourselves. We must learn again to pity the poor. We must work together and trust each other.'

I look around the austere little house. There is not one item here that is not essential, a few mosquito nets, a few mats, a cooking pot for the glowing fire, a few clothes hanging on nails in the wall. For this and the food the whole family works long hours hand sowing and hand harvesting the rice. And when the rice fields do not need attention, Ritta goes up to Phnom Penh to work 16-hour shifts in a restaurant.

How much poorer can you get? But I know the answer. Poorer is the old lady across the track who is blind with trachoma and begs for a small handful of rice grains. Poorer is the young man whose arm was amputated because he did not have money for the more difficult surgery to repair a bullet injury. Poorer is the young mother whose only possible means of income is prostitution.

'Cambodian problems that Cambodians can begin to resolve together,' says Ritta firmly. She and her mother are trying to persuade the village leader to gather the people and dig wells by hand, or at least ponds. In places where everyone could share the water. The women should learn about AIDS. More knowledge, more co-operation. Ritta's face is alive with enthusiasm.

The spirit of her father lives on.

Joan Healy

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