The majority of academics and policy-makers, when they refer to peace, mean the absence of war, and in this, the absence of military conflict. Further, many argue that since the end of WWII, the world has seen a decrease in the number of armed conflicts. This is arguable in itself, since the number of civil conflicts, outside of rich nations, remains persistently high, but it can also be challenged on a different level. Across the globe, citizens are still fighting on a daily basis, including to feed themselves and their families, combat unemployment and lack of housing, as well as struggling with various forms of psychological and physical abuses. And women are often on the frontline of this different type, and yet no-less, if not more, harmful war.

Cambodian Women’s Rights Activist and Opposition Political Party Member, Moo Sokooa, summed up the situation in a recent article, “despite progress made by governments and NGOs the world over to raise public awareness and to change society’s attitude toward violence against women because of their gender, crimes committed against women and girls remain pervasive. […] statistics show a picture that should alarm us all […].” Now, we must ask ourselves the following question: how come, after 60 years of ever-growing international institutions, conventions, and legal frameworks, targeting injustices (including those faced by women specifically) are we observing persisting, and even increasing, inequalities and discrimination?

Despite progress made in the empowerment of women, and especially with the “global development effort” of the last decades, it remains limited. Women remain subject to male physical domination, lower education, and little access to political decision-making roles. And this situation exists in all countries around the world, from the economically poorest to the richest. There are multiple reasons for this phenomenon - still weak legal frameworks, poorly implemented policies – as well as other multiple layers and interconnections, which I do not pretend to include and explain altogether in this short essay. What I would like to focus on here, using my own perspective, including my short-term experience in one “developing” nation, Cambodia, is one crucial foundational issue: the social construction of sexual and gender roles, how they lead to discrimination against women, influence women themselves, and alter their sense of power over their own lives.

I take here one example, that of sexual violence against women in Cambodia. In this country, one out of four women lives with violence in the home or has witnessed gender-based violence of one form or another. Many have been, and continue to be, daily victims of incest, torture and gang rape. As reported by Adhoc, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association and one of the leading NGOs in the country, in July, there were 201 rape cases identified during the first 5 months of 2009, out of which 134 cases (66%) concerned minors (under 18 years old). Moreover, out of these 134 cases, 28 involved girls under 10 (20.8%) and 106 involved victims aged from 10 to 17 years (79.2%). The actual number of these crimes is higher, as many cases are not voiced by the victims themselves or even reported by the local authorities, with agreements on compensation often reached between families of the victims and the perpetrators.

How come this is still happening when local authorities publicly claim their support for women’s rights, with the government having had a Women’s Affairs Ministry for more than 15 years, and with the international community supporting women’s empowerment for over two decades (I define “international community” here as involving all politicians who govern states, the international legal codes that they are supposed to abide by, as well as the network of international institutions and transnational NGOs)? I have only been working in Cambodia for 7 months, so I will not pretend to speak with absolute authority on the matter. Nonetheless, living and working abroad has made me realize how much in Cambodia, as in many countries around the world, discrimination inflicted on women and either directly or indirectly accepted by women themselves, remains fundamentally driven by socially-constructed gender roles, created in the past, perpetuated, and continuously re-created throughout our contemporary times. There remains a strong culture of fundamental disbelief and disregard towards women’s qualifications, expecting them to subordinate themselves to men. Both men and women will state the opposite: young girls are increasingly sent to school, and many women choose to work and become part of decision-making processes. Yet, young girls remain the first ones not to attend schools if the families are facing economic hardship, women are still seen as having to take care of the household chores whilst also remaining publicly silenced and heavily objectified and expecting to be “taken care of” by men. If they do enter the workforce, they are also directly or indirectly made to believe that they should not create strong “waves” in the public realm.

Further, this is a view which is transmitted to both men and women, through traditional family roles as well as via the media and pop culture coming from within and outside the country. Korean culture has been very popular amongst the younger generation for several years (after the Thai influence in the 1990s). I am astonished on a daily basis at the “inferior” and sexualized image of women, brandished as the “real feminine Asian women,” transmitted through Korean – as well as other Asian and “Western” - music, films, magazines, and fashion. The structure of society – as well as all the men, women and children in it – are profoundly influenced by this. In the example taken above of sexual abuses, there remains a strong sense of shame or fear of the power of the perpetrators and the authorities. Women often remain deeply socialized into not believing in their own sense of worth and in the power they have to bring about change for themselves, their families, and societies at large. Not only is this the case in the terrible situation of sexual abuse, but it is also true for all the domains which govern women’s, and all human beings’, lives: involvement in the private and public spheres, social, political, and economic life.

As a First Lady and as the only woman leading the team responsible for the drafting of the Universal Human Rights Declaration, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her biography: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home […] they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he (sic) lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” This statement underlines what is at the very heart of what social scientists, including feminists, have long recognized about human power and social change - that the process of empowerment stems from women’s consciousness of their individual worth and power to act together to bring change. Empowerment is not something that can be done “to” or “for” women. Empowerment is about women realizing the “power within” themselves and acting individually and together with other women to exercise “power from and with” each other, thereby gaining “power to” act as agents and fundamentally change the way conservative masculine-oriented societies function.

If this very recognition makes the role of any activists (including international human rights advocates) limited, it nonetheless does not render them absolutely irrelevant. Nevertheless, in this, we must seriously take into account the point made above; especially the extent to which the process of development, and women’s personal development specifically, takes a diversity of pathways, long-term and unpredictable ones. Development has been a major item on world leaders’ political agenda for nearly six decades now, yet there are still many fundamental needs that need to be met in terms of human development. Taking the example of Cambodia, the country suffered the combination of a civil war, a US-led coup and a genocide in one decade (the 1970s), followed by foreign invasion and control for the next decade, during the remaining of the Cold War (Vietnam invaded in 1979, ousted the Khmer Rouge from power and retained control of the country, with Soviet support, throughout the 1980s). This ended in the early 1990s when, after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, Cambodia saw an outpouring of United Nations and wider civil society political, financial and technical support. This foreign support never stopped and has kept increasing ever since. Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, is today the second-ranked city in the world in terms of number of NGOs, after Kigali in Rwanda. And yet, despite this incredible generosity and human rights consciousness, we still see today in Cambodia increasing human rights abuses including daily rapes, psychological violence, and the lack of freedom of speech. Here, we need to ask a crucial question: what can the international community do to help bring more fundamental change to this persistently depressing situation?

Many academics, including Andrea Cornwall, writing in Pathways of women's empowerment (July 2007), argue that, “the dominant thinking about women and development has become mired in a progressive-sounding orthodoxy that fails to engage with the realities of women’s experience and aspirations around the world.” If this is indeed “dominant thinking,” then in practice, it is increasingly resisted by an approach that wants and pushes to “engage with the realities of women’s experience and aspirations.” This more practical approach makes us refocus our attention on individuals’ own experiences and how everyone can assist others in pushing people along their own path of empowerment. Further, it calls for defining empowerment, as Naila Kabeer puts it, in Pathways of Women’s Empowerment (, as a “journey without maps”, and even a set of multiple journeys. Each “journey without maps” is to be one of self-discovery and expression, one on which horizons shift as the terrain changes. And it is indeed a horizon, in other terms, a long-term journey, with short and medium term impacts, but maybe not as concrete and predictable as we have maybe let ourselves believe too much until now. Further, it is a thinking which, when put into action, requires a combination of time, great skills and experience, as well as incredible commitment to women and their culture.

Yet here, one has to work within the institutional structure of today’s world: the demand for speed, visible results, and efficiency, as well as existing mainstream development agencies working with local authorities and elites, all holding their own political agendas. Fast-track and “cold” agency programs and government policies continue to be rolled out by “experts” over any terrain, with “power” thus turned from a structural relation into a transferable commodity, shifted away from the actual agents of change, and “choices” made less by determining and expressing the parameters of the possible than by selecting options made available by bureaucratically-led development intervention. I am certainly not making the point that this is the case everywhere and that individuals within these agencies are not doing all they can to serve the interests of the most discriminated. However, one main approach which has been taken in the last decades has some drawbacks which have gradually fixed the very limits of our “power to empower”. I take here two examples which I have encountered during my time here: microfinance projects and political quotas.

Firstly, in the last decade, “empowerment” has come to be increasingly linked to microfinance, economic projects that give women small loans and enlist them in small-scale business activities such as producing and selling traditional handicrafts or food products (see the following link, for instance, I myself was all for microfinance when I first began reading about and studying it at University. After several months of working here I have come to realize that this approach, as any, cannot be an all-encompassing “tool” or “channel” for empowerment, and that it has its own limits regarding how much it can actually promote women’s “own chosen paths.” Whether small loans actually enhance women’s “agency” and “choices” depends as much on the terms of their contract (how the women actually chose to enter the activity, continued assistance and mentorship, dialogue etc…), as on what they decide to do with their money and experience gained in the short and long-terms. If involvement in business activities can be very relevant to women interested or skilled in such projects, it is not for all. Further, even for women desiring to enter business activities, we must keep in mind that financial independence is indeed central to attaining one’s personal objectives, but one’s personal objectives cannot be limited to financial independence. Strict focus on the “money” side of microfinance risks making us conflate self-empowerment with economic empowerment. Yet, while empowerment is about expressing the entirety of one’s potential, monetary security is a tool to attain this. Further, economic empowerment itself has impacts on family and social dynamics. Promoting women’s empowerment must take into account existing structures and relationships, as well as men and children’s rights. Finally, we must be careful that NGOs are not fixated as the sources of (economic) power and women as their unquestioning recipients. Women’s “liberation” from traditional gender roles would then actually just be turned into another form of “social imprisonment,” with their own strategies, objectives and visions (partly) silenced by organizations speaking “for them.”

This brings me to the second aspect I have been working on and researching: political involvement of women. In recent years, this has become a crucial item on political agendas of major institutions as well as governments. Until now, the emphasis has been on increasing numbers, quotas, and percentages of women in politics. However here, we must stop and ask whether demanding greater representation of women within flawed political structures is what will do the trick. In many countries, including in Cambodia, the numbers have increased, the percentages have been bumped up, and yet, discrimination persists, at all levels: women still do not speak out, voice their personal concerns and opinions too little, and avoid critically assessing existing conservative male-dominated policies and legislations. As Ana Alice Costa from the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment team in Brazil points out, making political institutions more responsive and accountable is about more than just getting larger numbers of women into politics. This is simply a first step towards addressing fundamental inequalities. The women now involved might still be voicing and reproducing the opinion of the strongest, sidelining the interests and rights of the poorest and most discriminated against in development of policies, and thereby reifying the very structures which perpetuate such inequalities, including those based on gender.

Power issues lie at the very heart of politics - its conduct and content. Therefore, we need to realize and bring attention to all political areas where sexual and gender-based power dynamics are very present. I come back here to my earlier example, with rape persisting as a tool of public male-domination, in times of armed conflicts especially. Today, we remain silenced and ignored by those for whom sexuality is a private matter, those for whom the only sexuality issues that matter are sexually transmitted infections and sexual violation, and those who advocate women’s empowerment at the same time as denying women the right to exercise choices over their own sexual, familial, and reproductive lives. Michel Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, would have argued that we must think about respecting the private realm, and not discursively “box” people by publicizing and “confessing” every aspect of sexuality. I would agree with his point. However, I would also argue that today, if we are truly committing ourselves to campaigning against and ending gender-based discrimination, we do need to embrace a public perspective on gender and sexuality, and one that promotes a wider and more inclusive approach; one that refuses to treat and socialize all women into weaker and silent individuals, to be protected by men; and which accepts all men’s and women’s sexualities.

After decades of nationaldand international public policies and strategies on the promotion and respect of human rights, our world has indeed made some great improvements, particularly in terms of women’s rights. Women are more visible than ever as they increasingly hold decision-making roles in the business, social, and political worlds. Yet, major improvements are still required, as we also realize that while women are increasingly visible in power relations, they might not yet actually be heard and listened to, or even themselves believe in their power to have a personal control over their private and public lives. Thus, the capacity of women to have an impact on power dynamics is actually reduced and even further institutionalized as weak. To consider this, and understand how to go forward from this realization, we must stop, discuss, and question, between “experts”, as well as with the people who are directly concerned. We must broaden our horizons and adopt a fundamentally new approach: long-term unpredictable journeys, that focus on collectively promoting gender equity and all individuals’ sense of worth and chosen paths, based on lived experiences, rather than academic and cultural stereotypes, multiple and layered visions and versions of empowerment, with the concept of power as a force for a fundamentally more just and equal world.

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