Going Back To Our Roots: A ‘New’ Pilot Approach for Gender Equality in Cambodia

02 Oct 2017

 This image has been widely used by women's rights advocates all over the world since the 1980s for women's self empowerment, campaign promotion and advertising.

I wish I could write a story about the outstanding gains that women have made in any of the countries I have been visiting or working in. But, lately, due to the current global backlash against women, I face serious problems in identifying those wins.

In the last decade, some success stories of women from different parts of the world describe how women have improved their position in society through strong determination and tireless work. One could think that we are on the right track to achieving gender equality. But let’s be honest, success stories that only reflect the reality of few female individuals are not real success stories. At least, not the real success stories we want to see and write about. Not the collective success story we are truly working for.

When promoting gender equality in the context of international development, some appropriate strategic advice can (in the best-case scenario) result in policies and laws that are either specifically focused on reducing gender inequalities at hand, or that are more responsive to the needs of women. But a deep-rooted resistance to change still exists in the mindsets of many decision makers across countries. Even some of our own UN colleagues or other NGO development workers are guilty of nursing some latent gender biases. In consequence, gender equality is not taken as seriously as it should be, and most of the policies and laws that are passed are hardly implemented and monitored.

Reflecting about what we can do better to achieve substantive gender equality, there is one question that comes straight to my mind: Are we using the right approach?

It is worth remembering that our most outstanding international instruments to achieve equality between men and women– such as the CEDAW and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action- were drafted and passed after more than two centuries of organized vindication of women’s rights. These frameworks are the result of women’s social and political mobilization across generations and all over the world. But this remarkable collective success story has hardly been told in international development. The political strategies, social mobilization tactics, and conceptual tools developed by so many women along their historical struggles, and in many different places, remains a story largely untold. And it is time to revert this.

Lessons from the past teach us that real changes happen only when a critical mass of committed women and men, who consciously pursue structural changes, emerge and take action. A purely bureaucratic or technocratic approach for equality has historically not achieved much. Knowledge that is not built on passion or commitment for gender equality is information that generally remains unused by our counterparts and ends up forgotten.

Consciousness about gender equality can only be raised when addressing as well the personal experiences of inequality and oppression that our female (and some male) development counterparts have undergone or are indeed facing. Stories which, rather than isolated cases, are also common in their (and our) own societies. Because gender inequality is pervasive and recurrent. It affects all women and girls, and with greater harshness on females who are at the very bottom.

When our development counterparts share their experiences of oppression and are able to relate them to the historical emancipatory narratives of the women’s movement, our counterparts gain the ability to speak out, empower themselves and act against resistance to gender equality.

In Cambodia, the change-makers of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs are commencing a new and innovative program with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida). We are bringing back our feminist roots to activate civil servants and partners to achieve some tangible results. We have not only buried the toxic and ineffective ‘business-as-usual’ approach for gender equality, but we have also learnt from it about what we must do better.

And on the way, we already achieved something against all odds, namely the formulation of the ‘Leading the Way for Gender Equality’ program. However, the complete success story of this new program has yet to be written. And dedicated Cambodian women and men will for sure be the ones who write it.

To be continued…



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