Many governments talk about their plans to combat violence against women, but these often miss the vital ingredient – the women who work with these issues every day. Not so in Cambodia, where fearless women are fighting back against a cycle of violence and poverty – and are making the government’s plans better too.
“I need to earn more money so I make myself work until eight or ten at night. I feel very scared cycling home in the dark… Once, a gang followed me on their motorbikes… Some other garment workers I know have even been raped.”
Kunthea lives in Phnom Penh, where she works making clothes for major high-street brands. Poverty wages, bad working conditions and extremely long hours combine to leave her and many like her exposed to violence – including psychological violence used by employers to pressure them into working harder.
Because employers see them as more passive than men, women are the first choice of many factories, who believe they are less likely to challenge exploitation by joining unions or protesting.
But that’s exactly what many women in Cambodia are doing.
Organising to fight back
In 2014, thousands of garment workers took to the streets to demand an end to poverty wages. Government security forces responded brutally – dozens of protesters were injured, and the government banned public gatherings in an effort to instil fear.
But the women have continued their struggle and – despite facing brutal repression and a crackdown on their right to protest – they successfully pushed for the minimum wage to be raised in 2014. These wages are still not enough to live on, and their poor working conditions and exposure to violence continues, but so does their fight to counter it.
A better national plan on tackling violence
Women’s groups in Cambodia have helped to strengthen their country’s fight against violence too.
Our new report on violence against women finds that levels of violence are almost twice as high in countries where civil society, including women's organisations, is not free to flourish. In fact, the presence of women's organisations is the single most important thing in ensuring the government takes meaningful action to tackle violence against women. When policies are made without listening to the women themselves, it shows.
So when the Cambodian government set out their new National Action Plan on combatting violence against women last year, it was great to see women’s groups actively involved. The plan was launched after nine months of consultation with women’s organisations and civil society, including ActionAid Cambodia and local partners. And local women's organisations will keep playing a critical role in ensuring their goverment keeps to its promises.
Women's groups like these have been combating violence against women for decades, and they know what works. That’s why we’re calling for governments to put women at the centre of the fightback against violence.
Photo: Savann Oeurm/ActionAid