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Experience file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

September 2004

Changing roles as a result of the Khmer rouger civil war in Cambodia

Keywords: Social sciences and peace | Internet and peace | | To analyse conflicts from a social point of view | | | | | | | | | Cambodia

Conflict description

Cambodia is a country in Southwest Indochina. Approximate 13 million people live in its surface area of 181 thousands square km. Most of them are Khmer Buddhists speaking Khmer language, though there are some Vietnamese and Chinese as well. Since the country was recognized as the Kingdom of Cambodia in 1954 by the Geneva Conference, it has experienced a series of interventions by other countries as well as severe internal conflicts for decades under the context of the Cold War. The conflict resulted in some hundreds thousand refugees evacuated to the border of Thailand and death of millions of Cambodians.

In the case of peace building process in Cambodia since 1991, there were 4 major factional Organizations in Cambodia as main Primary Actors: National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (the FUNCCINPEC Party) headed by Noorodom Ranariddh, the Republican Son Sann Party headed by Son Sann, the People’s Republic of Cambodia, i.e. Heng Samrin regime, and the Khmer Rouge headed by Pol Pot.

The end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the former Soviet Union weakened the Vietnamese supported Hemg Samrin regime and made it possible for the Third Parties to promote peace process. The four Primary Actors of the conflict, together with 19 other countries agreed the ceasefire at the Paris International Conference on Cambodia in 1991. Following to the conference, the establishment of the Supreme national Council (SNC), and the Peace Keeping Operation launched by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), the general elections, the promulgation of the new Constitution, and the appointment of Prince Sihanouk as King of Cambodia happened within just a few years. This shows that the outsider-neutral third party, UNTAC and insider-partial third parties, SNC and Prince Sihanouk functioned relatively in efficient manner, once the peace agreement was made. Though the Kumer Rouge headed by Pol Pot dropped out from the peace negotiation process in 1993, they became dysfunctional eventually in the late 1990s, and the Republican Son Sann Party was merged by the FUNCCINPEC Party in 1999. While there was an armed crash between the Prime Minister Hun Sen and the FUNCCINPEC Party headed by Noorodom Ranariddh in 1998, currently, the armed force by the FUNCCINPEC Party was merged into the national army and currently, there was no major internal conflict in Cambodia.

While UNIFEM assisted in drafting the constitution to integrate gender sensitivity into the draft through consultation process of different levels of women, it is worthwhile to mention that United Nation Division for the Advancement of Women Expert Meeting points out that the administration system in war torn country was based on a patronage system whereby people in a particular region gravitated around powerful macho warlords who dispensed all kinds of fear or favors to their clients in return for tributes and loyalty. Young and vulnerable women and girls were exploited because of their sex. Women functions in the conflict of Cambodia were various. Some educated women were part of the Khmer rouge leadership. Many women worked as the logistical support for Khmer Rouge. There were more than 10 women associations within the three Cambodian refugee camps along the Cambodian-Thai border providing vocational training. However, few women had been involved in the pre-agreement peace negotiations in Cambodia. While UNTAC hired many women as local staff, and many women created NGOs, not a single woman sat as a major player at the peace negotiation table.

Roles of men and women

Before the conflict period, Cambodia was a predominantly agrarian patriarchal society. Women were supposed to subordinate themselves to their husband and family. However, it is said that Cambodian social networks and family structures have broken down, or at least been seriously impaired, by decades of conflict. Resulting from the deaths of more men than women in combat, and more killings of men than women during the Khmer Rouge period, the population of female aged over 15 is more than that of male. Forced marriages as well as polygamies were widely exercised during the conflict period. Female heads of household increased.

After the conflict, men often faced with disability as well as lack of job opportunities due to loss of agricultural livelihood. Instead, women by using their skills of domestic labour, played the role of breadwinner. In addition, it is reported that the number of female prostitution dramatically increased after the launch of UNTAC. The Cambodian Women Development Association estimates that the number of prostitutes in Cambodia grew from about 6,000 in 1992 to more than 25,000 at the height of the UNTAC mission.

Changes in identities

The long period of oppression in the society under the conflict caused the trauma of men. The release of stress coming from the trauma often resulted in the increase of domestic violence to women in households. The identity of women had to change as well. Women were put in the more vulnerable position, as a victim of domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and the responsibility as breadwinner.

Impact on rights

The aftermath of the conflict resulted in a violation of women rights and women were put in the more vulnerable position. In the mean time, many international donors supported women to form women’s groups who contributed to grass-roots level development activities. Gradually, women in Cambodia managed to attain the positive image to be representative in the parliament such as less-violent, good listeners, with cooperative attitudes. This resulted in the gradual increase in the number of women representation in the national parliament.

Impact on relationship

The impact of the conflict changed the relationship between men and women in traditional culture. The increase in women organization after the conflicts gradually made it possible for women to be in the political arena for decision making, though many of them are not self-sustained and heavily depends on support from international donors. For example, the Domestic Violence Law was drafted with incorporation of different women NGOs in Cambodia. While the law is not enacted by the National Assembly, it is possible to say that women in Cambodia gradually managed to develop their bargaining power to actively involve in the society.


In this paper the author analyses briefly the three decades of conflict in Cambodia and the role that women played throughout all of it. The long period of oppression in the society under the conflict caused the trauma of men. The release of stress coming from the trauma often resulted in the increase of domestic violence to women in households. The identity of women changed as well. Women were put in the more vulnerable position, as a victim of domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and becoming responsible as breadwinner.


  • The author of the file is : Minori TERADA.