In Cambodia, three women have been recognized for work that combines technology with efforts to combat violence against women, a major problem in the Southeast Asian country. Winning the inaugural VXW Award means the women will get assistance to further promote their efforts on smartphones and online, two fast-growing sources for information in Cambodia.
Bunn Rachana, one of the winners, has been involved in combating violence against women for eight years. Her latest project, working with British non-profit ActionAid, is an initiative to promote safety for women in urban areas.
Rachana said the technical assistance the award brings, including assistance from software developers in creating apps for smartphones in the Khmer language, should speed efforts to counter gender-based violence. That could result in new ways to help women discreetly notify someone if they feel threatened, or apps that log the geographic locations where women are routinely harassed, to help push the government to improve public safety.
Harassment of women in Cambodia, she said, is commonplace.
“Especially when we travel on the road all by ourselves, we get harassed most of the time, right. There are lots of, like, blowing kisses, winking face, sexual comments about our physical appearance. I think that is one of the very important issues that we are facing as a woman, but it’s got normalized and not [discussed] a lot,” said Rachana.
The second winner, Phat Sreytouch, helps women who work in the entertainment industry, such as beer promoters, karaoke singers and waitresses, all of whom commonly suffer harassment and worse. She said many women don’t know where to turn when they encounter problems in the workplace. She hopes to improve the resources available to women to learn about their rights in the workplace, and the services available to them.
The third winner, university graduate Sum Dany, blogs on women’s issues in a bid to raise awareness and reduce the shame that women who suffer violence often feel. She said technological innovations can help to spread information quickly and improve women’s understanding of Cambodia’s domestic violence law, and their access to legal aid.
Silas Everett, head of the Cambodia office of The Asia Foundation, which set up the award, said the technical assistance the award brings will help the winners further develop their efforts online and on smartphones.
Nearly all women in Cambodia have access to a mobile phone, he said, and smartphone penetration is rising 30 percent annually. That is changing traditional forms of communication, Everett pointed out, and means using this technology to counter violence against women is timely.
“We’ve got youth who are connecting to each other, connecting to a globalized world of norms and values, and sharing information with each other. The activists are tapping into that with the technology. As they develop their apps, they’ll be addressing a particular challenge that they see, and they’ll be leveraging the networking, the information-sharing, the ability to show video, images and interactive content through their apps,” said Everett.
The award comes at a time of rising international efforts to tackle violence against women. Last year saw the launch of a groundbreaking initiative to combat crimes of sexual violence in war zones, an effort championed by Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie among others.
The abduction last year of hundreds of women and girls by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria, and attacks on women in India, also made headlines.
Award-winner Bunn Rachana thinks the situation for Cambodia’s women has improved in recent years but said more is needed to help them, particularly when it comes to economic independence.
And although men are at the heart of the scourge, she would like future awards to recognize the work that some Cambodian men are doing to combat violence against women.
“It would be good if we had one man sitting there and talking about women’s rights, women’s issues, women’s efforts. So I hope next time there will be more equivalence between men and women,” she said.
Meantime, plenty of challenges remain. It’s common enough, for instance, to see violence meted out against women on national television. A successful anti-violence effort, experts say, needs action from all segments of Cambodian society, including its media.