Ros Sopheap was sipping ginger tea and lemonade in July when she decided to retire after more than two decades of activism that pushed for gender inclusivity and women’s empowerment. She will step down as the head of Gender and Development for Cambodia (GADC) later this year.
The activist, 60, moved from being an official at the Ministry of Information in the mid-1990s to founding GADC in early 2000 to advocate for gender equality and inclusion of women into positions of power. She has also researched and helped increase people’s understanding of gender-based violence and worked to reduce its prevalence.
Ros Sopheap said it has been a steep path to advocate for what she and GADC believe in, as well as a lot of personal development for her.
“Young and naive,” is Ros Sopheap’s answer when asked about her start in promoting women’s rights. She had “no idea of what gender was really about, what advocacy was about, or the fact that gender would become such an important issue in society as it is now.”
After working at the Information Ministry, she was an interpreter, a researcher and a project coordinator with local and international groups. During one of these projects, Ros Sopheap said her interest in understanding the roots of gender-based violence was piqued.
“I spent six months with villagers in six provinces to survey domestic violence. I started to understand more about domestic violence and hear [women’s] stories,” she said.
It was challenging to speak to women about their experiences with violence, Ros Sopheap said, because many were unaware this violence was a criminal act – most women denied being in abusive relationships or marriages. It took long conversations to get the women to talk about the violence they experienced, she added.
“If we don’t know how to ask them properly, their answer would be ‘no, we are not a victim of violence.’ But after I spent a few days in the village with them, they started to openly talk with me and share their stories,” she said.
She moved on to join a three-year program as a gender training coordinator in 1997, which would eventually morph into GADC in 2000, with Ros Sopheap as its founder.
“Before GADC, no one talked about gender. [There were] no documents about gender in Khmer. And when people talked about gender, GADC would be the first to come into their minds,” Ros Sopheap told VOA Khmer.
The activists said a combination of factors helped her in her career, including her visceral commitment to women’s rights, hard work and ability to identify and nurture young activists who would continue their work.
It is not unusual for activists, especially those like Ros Sopheap who have been at the forefront of their activism, to step back and assess their work and the impact it had.
Neary Rattanak is a government policy to mainstream gender into policies and programs and encourages women’s inclusion in civil society and the government. According to the program, 20 percent of parliamentarians were women after the 2018 national election compared to six percent in the country’s first election in 1993.
As of 2019, 21 percent of ministers, secretaries and undersecretaries of state were women. However, on closer look there are only three women in Cambodia’s 33-member Council of Ministers and only two provincial governors.
Ros Sopheap said that while there were more women in positions of power - a gradual increase she points out – the gender dynamic was still heavily pitted in favor of men. She said more needed to be done to build the capacity of women and girls, both inside and outside the home.
“It’s not only about education at school, but also support from family, friends, and surrounding people,” she said.
There have been two encouraging examples of sections of society standing up for gender equality, especially when the perpetrator of the abuse is powerful. Local tycoon Heng Sear accused a television presenter of stabbing him after she alleged that he had raped her. The presenter was sent to jail, and it took a sustained social media campaign, full of anger and exasperation at the system, for the courts to release her. However, no action has been taking against the tycoon for allegedly raping her or falsely accusing her of stabbing him.
Similarly, another tycoon, Duong Chhay, was caught on CCTV camera physically assaulting his former wife and another outpouring of rage online led to an arrest warrant. The man entered the monkhood and has yet to be arrested.
These expressions of rage against powerful men assaulting women are encouraging, but Ros Sopheap points to another lingering, misogynistic practice that enforces the patriarchy.
“Chbab Srey” is a code of conduct, in the form of a poem, on how to be a “proper woman,” that was taught in Cambodian schools. While it was largely removed from the curriculum in 2007, the poem continues to be unofficially taught to schoolchildren.
When Ros Sopheap was taught “Chbab Srey” it was still part of the curriculum. The women's rights activist said her curiosity and skepticism were instrumental in challenging the gender norms espoused by the obsolete poem.
“I am not criticizing the scholars from past generations,” Ros Sopheap said, “Yet, ‘Chbab Srey’ is supposed to be literature that reflects the reality in the past. Some parts are no longer practical, it’s out of date. We need to redefine these rules and practices.”
After more than two decades of advocating for gender equality, Ros Sopheap admits change can be slow – pointing to certain gender stereotypes that she sometimes subconsciously uses in her personal life.
She described an interaction with her son, who had long hair, where Ros Sopheap told him to cut it because long hair was for girls.
“This kind of little thing about gender roles and identity are still on my mind. And it’s very hard to make a complete change.”