Efforts are underway to recruit men and boys in the battle for gender equality in Cambodia, in an approach that experts hope will help prevent violence against women.
People working for civil society groups have told VOA Khmer that they are focusing on this approach in order to forge emotional bonds between fathers and their children. Others are encouraging men to consider how labor is divided between them and their wives in their households.
Promundo, a group promoting gender justice around the world, and in Cambodia, works especially with men and boys. Founder Gary Barker said the organization’s activities have created a sense of empathy in men’s physical responses to their children and wives, resulting in more harmony within the family. The activities include group discussions and playtime between children and their fathers.
“Even the physical contact of men with young children creates a hormonal change in men,” he said. “We use empathy, the physical responses we have as human beings, and get men to exercise that.”
His group and partner organizations have been carrying out these activities around the world, particularly in conflict zones, to help men find an alternative to violence.
“There is no other intervention I think that shows immediate change in men than we can get them to spend some time providing daily care for their children. Then we can see them talk about the issue [domestic violence] in a different way,” said Barker.
Likewise, a project promoting an equal division of labor between men and women has reportedly resulted in a reduction of gender-based violence in six communities in Kampong Chhnang, Pursat and Prey Veng provinces.
The project has been implemented by Gender and Development for Cambodia (GADC) and Heifer International Cambodia for the past three years. GADC executive director Ros Sopheap said it had proven effective in changing men’s attitudes to their family’s socio-economic situation.
“Through the activities, we help men realize the importance of their roles in working hand in hand with their wives to build a better livelihood, and that creates changes in their attitude toward the division of labor,” she said.
By way of an example, Sopheap said she had seen positive change in one troubling family in Kampong Chhnang province, in which the husband was previously an alcoholic, and would inflict verbal and physical abuse upon his wife.
“He told me he changed his attitude toward violence because he cares about the future of his children, and the family’s livelihood,” she said of the husband’s attitude after taking part in the project.
“Nowadays he rarely drinks, but spends most of his time helping his wife earn a better living,” Sopheap said. “And he also advocates among his peers about their roles as good husbands and fathers.”
Trude Jacobsen, a history professor at Northern Illinois University who authored the book “Lost Goddesses: The Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History” said that socio-economic development itself has positive impacts on gender relations.
When job opportunities improve in a country, men may be relieved of the frustrations of joblessness, which can themselves lead to violence, she said.
Additionally, socio-economic improvements often entail better educational opportunities for both men and women. With this, “men and women will be more aware of the rights of women to not suffer violence, and what they can do to achieve these rights,” Jacobsen said.
Pok Panha Vichet, executive director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, told VOA Khmer that combating gender-based violence must involve changing social norms and the attitudes of men toward gender equality.
“You know, we have men caring about gender equality and helping their wives caring for their children and doing household chores, but they often get discouraged because of the social norms believing that ‘real men’ don’t do such work,” she said.
Some men are able to see beyond such norms, however. In an interview with VOA Khmer, one husband, Em Thy, said he believed doing household chores and taking care of the children did not make him any less of a man.
“We help each other. I don’t care if this is ‘women’s work’,” he said. “I do grocery shopping, cooking and laundry. This is a family tradition that has created harmony between us.”