Two decades of conflict and genocide in Cambodia, in particular the rule of terror of the Khmer Rouge, have had devastating social, family, interpersonal, economic, and political effects on women. This report, one in a USAID-funded series on women in post-conflict societies, explores the role of the indigenous women's organizations (WOs) created and nurtured by the international community to improve the lot of Cambodian women.
The WOs, though numbering only 18, are empowering women through vocational training and microcredit programs and by assisting victims of HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, and trafficking and forced prostitution. They are also beginning to influence the political landscape through voter education and advocacy programs. According to one trainee: "Men cannot abuse women if women know their rights. Now we understand how to work together for justice." Yet WOs continue to face many obstacles. The country has no tradition of civil society organizations, government support is unstable, and WOs' dependence on external assistance limits their autonomy and capacity to fashion new programs. WO leadership is dominated by one charismatic figure reluctant to delegate authority. Most of the WOs have yet to develop an open management system in which the staff can discuss issues and problems freely. WOs require continual international support to survive and play an important role in improving women's social and economic conditions.
The Cambodian experience inculcates the following major lessons: (1) Comprehensive, targeted interventions based on a coherent policy framework are needed to help women and reconstruct gender relations in post-conflict societies. Gender-blind policies and programs are not sufficient. (2) The war undermined the traditional sexual division of labor, creating new economic and political opportunities for women. Women entered into occupations closed to them earlier and held important national and local offices during the conflict. After the war, donors developed programs to consolidate those gains. This course can be followed in other post-conflict societies. (3) Education and training of women in refugee camps can prepare them to assume leadership roles in post-conflict societies. (4) Newly founded WOs can be used by the international community to channel humanitarian and developmental assistance in post-conflict societies. But WOs are also a means to help women gain self-respect and participate in decisionmaking. (5) WOs in post-conflict societies can develop local roots and gain political legitimacy despite dependence on international resources. (6) Donors should consider multi-year funding to allow WOs to focus on social, economic, and political development activities. (7) WOs often follow the example of international NGOs in their working conditions, spending considerable resources on four-wheel-drive vehicles, spacious offices, and large support staff. Such operations are questionable under the conditions of post-conflict societies. (8) Cambodian WOs should be encouraged to specialize instead of competing for external resources for similar programs.