By Ray Gordezky
I recently returned from two weeks of work with organizations and communities in Cambodia and Vietnam. This was the first of what may be additional visits to Cambodia and Vietnam to provide support to non-government organizations working primarily in the area of community-based natural resource management, that want to bring a stronger focus to gender justice in their programming.
Achieving gender justice means that women and men are able to share equally in the distribution of power and knowledge. It also means that both have equal opportunities, rights and obligations in their private and public lives.
In both countries, even in those communities that have an emphasis on matrilineal descent, women are burdened by the full force of historical traditions that put them in positions of disadvantage. This is not a theoretical claim; rather this statement is based on the meetings I had with four communities.
In my visits, I heard variations of the same theme: though their traditions (or the way women and men participate in village/community life) are supposed to save disgrace and misunderstandings, as well as provide for the well being of community members, the minimizing of women’s rights by claims that traditions reflect the natural order of life hides the daily dehumanization women face simply because of gender.
A restrained yet noticeable anger came through in the stories women told us, built up through daily experiences of work strain, beatings, and limited education opportunities. A man in one of the communities told us that the practice of early marriage (marriage at 14, followed by the multiple births by the age of 25) in time produces profound loneliness. No amount of visibility from past gender equality efforts, concerning how women are excluded or their contributions minimized, have altered how women are treated in a sustainable way. From hearing women’s stories, I felt in what they said loneliness akin to despair, a loneliness and despair made invisible in silence and through shame.
I felt a visceral disappointment: the very help I am offering (to make visible the taken for granted injustice done to women), and the visibility this is intended to produce, may do little to alter women’s lives. And the men, for the most part, do not fully take in the injustice, as they after all have their roles.
Even in light of these challenges, I have experienced that gender justice and unequal gender power relations can and do change as a result of organizations and communities clarifying what gender concerns need to be addressed, and addressing these concerns through co-created solutions.
We are at the beginning: establishing relationships with partner organizations, gaining a shared understanding of the gender concerns as expressed and experienced by commune and village members, and building trust between those of us involved. I intend to send periodic updates on the work in South East Asia as a way to communicate with you about how we can collectively produce changes in culture, specifically in gender justice, and in what ways efforts to positively effect gender justice are particularly challenging.
This project is a collaborative initiative between Oxfam America and Gender at Work, and also involves organizations in Senegal and Ghana.