Gender politics makes a difference: Experiences of the Heinrich Böll Foundation across the world

Cambodia - Pioneering work 

The Heinrich Böll Foundation asked Cambodian women from very different spheres of life how they evaluated the situation of women in their country. There was a surprising amount of agreement between the ladies of the urban middle classes, rural women struggling with harsh circumstances, and Cambodian women working in NGOs who are fully familiar with their foreign promoters’ gender discourse.

All of them evaluated the fundamental problems as being a lack of access to education and thus high illiteracy rates, economic dependency, domestic violence, and hierarchical gender relations founded on traditional role stereotypes. The latter problem contributes to excluding women from active participation in political processes. Even in those cases where women hold leading roles in local communities or organizations, they are heavily dependent on men in the process of laying claim to their rights.

On the formal level, gender mainstreaming seems to have left its mark on Cambodia’s government: the national strategic development plan and other government plans mention the significance of gender, the Department for Women has passed a second five-year plan, and many other departments have gender mainstreaming “action groups.” Nevertheless, a wider politicalunderstanding is still absent in many cases. Most of the gender representatives at the local level content themselves with collecting health and hygiene statistics and working on improvements to sanitary facilities.

What is lacking is an open debate that could result in an accepted interpretation and detailed practical elaboration of the call for gender justice and gender democracy. The gender-political activities of more than 1,800 local and 500 international NGOs in Cambodia may be fueled by international pressure and influence rather than by a domestic “demand” for democracy. Cambodian NGOs and the government have simply taken over the terminology of the foreign donor and research industry, so that “gender” is often used merely as a development policy slogan, empty of any professional or personal confrontation with the related ideas. There is no translation of the word into Khmer, and as a result gender is often narrowly equated with the empowerment of women or the campaign against domestic violence. Above all, “gender” is often misunderstood as an indictment of the behavior of men.
Gender policy, feminist analyses, and feminist discourses have held a firm place in the Heinrich Böll Foundation since its very beginning. Along with ecology and democracy, they are a key focus of our work in Germany and abroad, and a guiding principle for both the Foundation’s promotion of research and its own organizational structure.

In this publication, the Heinrich Böll Foundation presents a small sample of its work in Cambodia and all over the world.