Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Op-Ed: Reassessing Household Dynamics and National Policies for Gender Equality

Families spending time at the riverfront in Phnom Penh, July 8, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Families spending time at the riverfront in Phnom Penh, July 8, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

When we talk about a Cambodian family or household, we tend to make assumptions about specific roles—mother, father, son, daughter—and the duties associated with these roles. For instance, we see a father as the sole breadwinner of the family. We traditionally see a mother as the caretaker, who manages the household as well as takes care of the children. 

These ideas are deeply-rooted in society and have a clear impact on individual behaviors on what happens in individual households, and on the way girls and boys are raised by mothers and fathers to become women and men. 

But it’s also important to note and discuss ways these ideas extend beyond the household. In fact, the reach of these ideas is so vast, that traditional and stereotypical notions about family roles have made their way into educational materials, and even national policies.  

Household stereotypes have a broad reach

Many of the pervasive ideas about the roles that different people play within a Cambodian household originate from the teachings of the Chbab Srey and Chbab Bros. These rules of behavior require men and women, and boys and girls to behave in a “certain way”, because if they do not abide by these rules, they would be “judged by society”. 

Traditionally, families have taught their daughters and sons to behave differently. For example, mothers are required to teach their daughters that a married woman should be able to manage the household budget, cook and look after her spouse and children. She would need to “talk and walk softly”, if not she would be called “srey kat leak” or improper woman. Meanwhile, men are taught to be tough and smart as later in life they would need to be the family’s main income earner and head of the family. 

While the texts of the Chbab Srey and Bros are no longer taught in Cambodian classrooms, many of the lessons for Cambodian school children which are still taught with regards to family dynamics mirror the sentiments of these traditional rules of behavior. For instance, Cambodian researcher My Sambath found one lesson on “Family harmony” within the civic-moral subject in the grade eight textbook instructing a wife to perform five duties to “bring happiness to the family”, two of which were about domestic work. One of these duties required the wife to “manage the household tasks well”, including doing laundry. The others were “maintaining the property well” and “cooking food to satisfy her husband”.

In contrast, Sambath’s research on the concept of “family happiness” prescribed in a textbook for grade seven students described a husband’s role as the family head. Seven family tasks were outlined. One task was to “lead and manage the family well and be responsible for the family’s welfare.”

Sambath also found that these norms – the father being the breadwinner and mother, the caregiver – have even made it into national policies, specifically the 2010 National Policy on Early Childhood Care and Development. His research revealed that instead of redistributing care, labor and costs from the family to the public sphere or between genders in the family, the policy reinforces the idea that women are responsible for their children and the household. For instance, one of the key facets of this policy, the home-based childcare program, is for it to be managed by groups that are called “Core Mothers’ Groups.” 

When Sambath asked a woman in one of the groups why the name and makeup of the group had been “feminized”, she said, “the ministry [Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport] advised her to establish a core mothers’ group, not a core fathers’ group.” She believed that it was because “fathers work far from home, [and] mothers are emotionally and physically closer to their children than fathers.”

When national policies, like the National Childcare Policy, reinforced women’s identities as family carers and men’s identities as family breadwinners, it made it that much harder for individuals to reframe their personal conceptions of those topics. This policy is not the only policy which implicitly or explicitly treats men and women’s roles in their families differently.

Another national policy is Article 950 of the Civil Code. While a Cambodian man can legally marry immediately after a divorce, Article 950 mandates that a woman must wait at least 120 days after the divorce before she could marry again. The policy clearly showed that there are codified norms which create inequality between men and women. 

Traditional family dynamics and gendered norms even permeate programs that are run by international NGOs. An example of this is a program funded by UNICEF on positive parenting. The first hint that this parenting training would not be gender inclusive is that it was organized by the local Commune Committee for Women and Children (CWCC). Despite the neutral wording throughout the UNICEF report on the training, photos of the event showed a different picture. The only participants of the training on parenting seemed to have been women.  

Family dynamics have wide-ranging impacts

Impacts of these assumptions, gendered household and family norms are clearly felt outside Cambodian homes. 

In a survey by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and UN Women, 54% of Cambodian women entrepreneurs said they were exposed to negative judgements by their family and 71% felt that their community judged them when starting a business. Other data reported that businesses by women entrepreneurs had been limited because they could not travel far from home due to reputational and safety concerns. 

The UNIDO and UN Women survey also stated that women managers in green industries confessed that it “can be hard” talking to their male colleagues. This was because of the “incompatibility between behaviors considered more feminine, such as empathy and kindness, and behaviors associated with leaders, such as self-confidence and assertiveness,” which affected the views of women leaders, thus contributing to prejudice in the workplace.

Another study found that women holding managerial roles in Cambodia’s health system said their views are less respected, and they have to work harder and achieve a higher standard than their male counterparts to gain the trust they need to do their job. 

Additionally, according to the United Nations Gender Equality Deep-Dive for Cambodia, female leaders within the government and civil sectors frequently highlighted the influence of prevailing gender norms on their self-image and the treatment by others. For instance, before they expressed their opinion on certain matters, women said they did extensive research as they were afraid of being judged “silly or lacking knowledge” compared to men. 

It’s also likely that these norms play a role in keeping Cambodian women out of policymaking altogether. As we are aware, Cambodia does not have many women in decision-making roles, especially in the field of politics. Data from the Parliamentary Institute of Cambodia showed that only one out nine deputy prime ministers in Cambodia was female, and out of 28 ministers, only three were women. Even though discrimination against women in politics has decreased, gender stereotypes from the Chbab Srey, and the risk of being labeled “improper women” taught to us by our parents at a young age, still limit our ability to comfortably hold decision-making roles. 

What can we do better?

Some of the changes should start from home and require both men and women to reconsider their views about the norms and roles they play in their household. Reimagining norms at home, for instance, might mean that men choose to stay at home if their children were sick while their spouse was busy at work or participate in care work equally.

Men who started taking on different roles within their families stood to gain a lot from an expansive role of fatherhood. One of them was Chhoeung Pen, a 23-year-old father who is of Kachak ethnic minority and lived in Ratanakiri province with his wife and son. Before participating in a training by Plan International Cambodia, which included the setting up of a “fathers’ group”, Pen said his wife was in charge of housework and childcare in their family. After the training, he “gained knowledge regarding the role of men in the household, like how to take care and teach children.” These days, before going to the farm every morning, Pen woke up early to clean the house, wash clothes and cook for his wife and son.

“I want my son to follow in my footsteps to support women and children.” Pen has also taken on the role of leading the village fathers’ group. The transition reflected what could happen if we changed our perspectives and saw that household responsibilities and childcare were not exclusively women’s responsibility.

According to the United Nations, positive male engagement can contribute to women’s emotional well-being, and help reduce gender inequitable relationships in households, which are crucial for women’s participation in the workforce. Men and women, who model equitable relationships and parenting for their sons and daughters, also make a huge impact on the views of the next generation. 

Outside of individual families, it’s also worthwhile to think about how we can ensure mainstream gender equality in all aspects of the policy-making apparatus and that laws and government programs do not explicitly or implicitly reinforce unequal gender role norms. Policy-makers must ask themselves if they are relying on gendered stereotypes and assumptions when designing or implementing projects. 

Rethinking and re-evaluating our choices now could change our mindset of how we can raise future Cambodians to be more inclusive and equitable in their approach to family life.

Yi Mynea is a junior research fellow at Future Forum.