PHNOM PENH – A school in Cambodia is teaching women housekeeping skills and social norms so they may become good daughters-in-law in keeping with old precepts that still largely govern women’s behavior in the country, but which are beginning to be questioned by feminist movements.
Surrounded by posters of food and carved fruits, Chanvicheka Phan, one of the students, is looking over some notes about how she should respect her in-laws and husband, once married.
Phan, 23, is worried about her future in-laws, and says that in Cambodia, “they tend to be very strict with the daughter-in-law and everything matters, they judge you all the time and you have to be careful with everything you do.”
Lim Mouly Ratana, founder of the Koun Brosar Srey school (The Daughter-in-law, in Khmer) began giving cooking lessons in 2001, but after perceiving gaps in public education, decided to turn it into a preparatory course for marriage.
“You can give the girls the knowledge to solve problems and also learn the responsibilities they will need to handle once they have a family,” she says in her classroom-come-kitchen located in a central Phnom Penh neighborhood.
The curriculum includes fruit carving, Cambodian and Western baking, cooking, sewing, floral arrangements and part of the “Chbab srey,” or Norms for Women, a didactic poem, which some academics date back to the early 19th century.
Along with its counterpart version for men, the “Chhab proh,” the poem has marked gender roles in the country since its creation.
Aware of the controversy surrounding the poem for its sexist connotations, Ratana says she has included only those rules that she considers important.
In 2007, the government withdrew “Chbab srey” from the school curriculum at the behest of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs; a portion of it, however, continues to be taught in some schools, particularly those in rural areas.
In an article, Australian scholar Trude Jacobsen, a translator of the poem and who has sporadically lived in Cambodia since the age of 14, says the poem shows an ideal of a society based on man’s privilege and woman’s submission.
Founder of the Network of Cambodian Men, which advocates women empowerment, Chhay Kim Sore says he values respect as a traditional Khmer cultural value but stresses that it is important to change some things.
“Women are not taught to be independent, to have initiative and take decisions; it is the fathers or brothers who tell them what to do, and not doing that means they lack respect or are disobedient, and that’s not good,” he says.
In a 2015 report, the World Health Organization (WHO) says violence against women is one of the main consequences of gender differences in Cambodia.
The study says 21 percent of women surveyed admitted to having suffered physical or sexual abuse by their partners, and nearly half had not disclosed it to anybody.