The “perfect” Cambodian woman


Kounila Keo, like many other Cambodian women, grew up thinking she would never be a proper lady in the eyes of society, because she laughed too loudly and walked too quickly. This well-known blogger was forced, both in primary and secondary school, to learn the Chbab Srey or Rules for Girls, a code of conduct explaining what society expects of women.

The Chbab Srey taught Kounila that women should serve their husbands and bow to their desires in a multitude of circumstances. “I agree with some (of these circumstances), but not all of them,” the blogger tells Equal Times.

“What I don’t agree with is when it says that men are gems and women are white cloth. This illustrates the discrimination against women and the pressure on them to be perfect, or almost perfect,” she explains.

In addition, the code of conduct, continues Kounila, urges women not to share “what happens in the domestic sphere” with other people, be it immediate family or third persons. Women, as the verse states, should be “quiet and polite”.


Rules for girls only

In Cambodia, many women, especially in the most conservative homes, typically continue to learn the Chbab Srey from their mothers, grandmothers or older sisters, which contributes to the rampant domestic violence in the Asian country.

The full version of the text, moreover, was part of the official school curriculum until the Ministry for Women’s Affairs called for its removal in 2007. The call led to the elimination of some but not all of the rules taught.

The remaining shorter version, taught to pupils in grades 7 to 9, includes quotes such as: “Happiness in the family comes from a woman”, or “a woman’s poor character results in others looking down upon her husband”. A report in the Cambodia Daily concluded that by teaching it in schools, the text continues to be strongly influential.

“Be respectful towards your husband. Serve him well and keep the flame of the relationship alive. Otherwise, it will burn you. Do not bring external problems into the home. Do not take internal problems out of the home,” instructs the Chbab Srey.

The text has led to unequal relations, with men dominating the public sphere and women continuing to be submissive. This is in spite of the increasing presence of women in the workforce, especially in the garment export industry, where they make up 80 to 85 per cent of all workers, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The only reliable data on gender violence in the country comes from statistics compiled with the support of the international community, explains Rodrigo Montero, an advisor with the German development cooperation agency (GIZ) at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Cambodia.

The most recent comes from a UN report on violence against women in Asia and the Pacific. The report reveals that 22 per cent of the women surveyed had experienced physical violence at the hands of a male partner, whilst only 16 per cent of the men recognised perpetrating this type of violence.

The dishonour and the tradition associated with this code of conduct is a blight enabling abuses to be perpetrated in a climate of impunity. According to the same report, 96.2 per cent of men and 98.5 per cent of women in Cambodia believe a woman should obey her husband, and 67 per cent of women said they should tolerate violence in order to keep their family together.

“Other forms of violence, such as psychological, emotional or economic abuse, have no legal implications in Cambodia and are practically impossible to trace,” says Montero.


Chbab Proh, the rules for men

There is a different code for men in Cambodia, the Chbab Proh, with much less stringent rules. “The text promotes leadership amongst men: be strong, organised, prepared, responsible, respectful towards teachers and elders, and take care of your family,” Mom Chantara Soleil, communications manager at the NGO Plan International, tells Equal Times.

Also, whilst the Chbab Srey says a lot about how a wife should behave towards her husband, her parents and elders, “the Chbab Proh barely makes any mention of the respect and honesty a husband owes his wife in return”, continues Soleil.

The teachers surveyed in the gender equality assessment made by the Cambodia Daily team in the province of Siem Reap, in 2014, responded that the Chbab Srey had no impact on their perception of gender equality. They did, however, agree with the rule maintaining that, “If girls are soft and slow, they are nice” and “they should learn everything in the house and be friendly”.

With regards boys, the same teachers underlined their leadership qualities.
In Kounila’s view, the Chbab Srey stifles women’s ability to pursue their own goals and aspirations in life. For her: “The gender discrimination in the country is generally a result of the cultural norms rather than any legal dictates.”


This article has been translated from Spanish.