It’s Not Karma, It’s Patriarchy
An Interview with Womyn’s Agenda for Change in Cambodia
It looks more like a warehouse than an office, or the nightclub that it used to be. That’s a good sign, I think. You can’t start a revolution behind elegant gates and sparkling windows, can you? Besides, who needs an interior decorator when you can cover your walls with hot pink anti-war flyers and a giant banner that says “Sex Work is Work”? This is what the office of Womyn’s Agenda for Change (WAC) looks like-not the typical non-governmental organization (NGO) office. But then again, the people who work here are not typical NGO workers. Most of them are women, almost all of them are Cambodian. They are former garment workers, organizing other factory workers. They are students, going out to the provinces to talk to farmers, to find out how corporate globalization affects their lives. And they are activists, lured away from positions in other NGOs by Rosanna Barbero, director of WAC. I met with of some of the women of WAC to talk about USAID, karma, “good girls,” and globalization, among other things.
The interview below took place on March 31, 2006 in Phnom Penh.
oob: I wanted to ask those of you who used to be garment workers, how did you get involved with organizing other garment workers?
Ly Phearak: I worked in a garment factory. Many of us were afraid to speak out. We wanted to run our own organization where we could talk about what’s happening at work and our lives. We started drop-in centers. There are now drop-in centers at six different factories where women can get together and talk, and also sing songs and do role plays-not just about work but about globalization, about life.
What do the bosses think of the drop-in centers?
Ly Phearak: They don’t know about them! But they know that we are learning about our rights. We have trainings where we share documents on labor laws and codes. When the factory owner does something that is illegal, we tell him we know it is illegal and that he has to stop. The owner was surprised that I knew it was illegal when he tried to dismiss me. He said, “How did you know? Don’t tell the other workers!”
But sometimes when we tell the owners that what they are doing is illegal, they don’t care. The strikes that happened in February and March were organized because of things like increased quotas, laying off permanent workers and replacing them with 3-month workers, forced overtime, and threatening workers. There was no solution to the strike.
Are all of the factories foreign-owned?
Ly Phearak: 90-95% are foreign owned, mostly by Chinese and Taiwanese.
How did the garment workers union get involved with campaigns against the World Trade Organization and corporate globalization?
Nil Kagnarith: Many garment workers come from farming families. We talk to farmers and villagers who tell us about the difference in their lives between now and before. For example, many farmers now have to spend money on pesticides. If the farmers don’t keep using the pesticide, the soil is destroyed. When the price of pesticide goes up, the farmers have to borrow money to buy it, and the interest rates are high. Plus, the money lenders are very strict. They have rules like, “Payment is due on the 28th of each month, at 2 pm.” If you come with the money at 3 or 4 pm, they fine you. Usually the money lenders make the payment due on the day that the daughter gets paid from the factory where she works. And usually they won’t even lend the farmer money if he has daughters who are not working in a factory.
Farmers have so much debt that they have to sell their land, migrate, then sell their labor to the other farmers. When we talk to the farmers, they say this is karma. But when they come to our meetings and trainings, they see that our families have similar problems. It’s not karma, it’s policy and planning.
Ly Pisey: I really didn’t know what globalization was doing to Cambodia until I came to WAC and started interviewing families. All my professors at school say that globalization is good for Cambodia. They say, “Look at the cars, big buildings, factories, and businesses.” Yes, I see them. But they are not mine! They are not for my family! Maybe five people own them.
I grew up near the U.S.-Mexico border, and it’s amazing how similar the situation here Is to what’s happening there.
Ly Pisey: What’s happening in Cambodia is happening all over the world.
Rosanna Barbero: You don’t hear women in other organizations talk like this, do you?
This is the first time I’ve heard anyone In Cambodia talk like this! Why? What makes WAC different?
Rosanna Barbero: We don’t have a big amount of money, but we get to work with real people. We can say what we want. Whenever you get a grant, there are strings attached.
Phuong Pry Phally: A lot of the other NGOs say they care about women, but it’s not really all women. They treat sex workers like they are not human. We’re involved with the Women’s Network for Unity [WNU], the Cambodian sex workers union. They are also in this office. WNU was invited to a meeting with NGOs and a foreign drug company to talk about HIV, and do you know what they said to the sex workers? The sex workers said, “Let us do outreach with our friends.” But the NGO people really didn’t care about this. All they really wanted was to persuade the sex workers to participate in drug trials. They wanted them to take this drug that had only been tested on monkeys. They told the sex workers, “You don’t have capacity for anything. The only experience you have is in bed.”
Nil Kagnarith: Most of the NGOs are run by people who are very educated…
Rosanna Barbero: …No, they’re not educated, they’re schooled. And they believe that people are poor because they are uneducated-If you are poor, it must be because you are lazy and stupid. Disease? It must be because people in the Third World are dirty, not because there is no access to good health care. Domestic violence? This must be caused by alcohol, or lack of education.
It strikes me that these are the same explanations used by “educated” people to explain poverty and violence against women in the United States, which is interesting because Westerners often accuse Cambodlans of being so hierarchical and elitist, so different from “us.”
Rosanna Barbero: Cambodian society is hierarchical, it is elitist. But the foreign development workers aren’t saying anything different. They believe the same thing, and they are reinforcing the hierarchy that already exists. That’s the way colonialism works. Whether you are Cambodian or foreign, when you say “people are poor because they need more education” you’ll get funding from USAID and other big donors. If development workers understood structures of poverty they would have to discuss political structures, which would jeopardize their funding.
Is this why you turned down money from USAID?
Rosanna Barbero: Ninety percent of the budget for HIV programs in Cambodia comes from USAID. So if you are working on HIV issues and want funding, you don’t talk about sex worker empowerment or gay rights, you talk about “MSM” [Men who have sex with men]. Don’t talk about rights, talk about condoms!
I thought that MSM was a way of recognizing that some men who have sex with men do not necessarily identify as gay or bisexual. Perhaps “queer” would be a better term?
Rosanna Barbero: I don’t think development workers outside the gay community should use the term “queer.” And I understand the argument for the term MSM. It’s a good argument. But what’s the reality here? Cambodian men are expected to get married and have kids. What development workers are saying when they use the term MSM is, that is fine if you have sex with men, as long as you don’t say you’re gay, as long as you stay in the closet, as long as you don’t fight for your rights.
You said earlier that most development workers believe alcohol and lack of education cause violence against women. What do you believe causes violence against women?
Ly Phearak: There is inequality, unequal power between men and women.
Rosanna Barbero: If women are good, stay at home and hide, then everything is okay. When women challenge men’s power, then there is a backlash, violence. If women stay in place, everything is nice and smooth. Of course, here in the office we can run wild!
What happens when you are not In the office? Can you talk openly about what you do and what you believe?
Rosanna Barbero: When you have a new understanding and new ways of thinking, it is more difficult to live here. There is pressure to be a “good girl,” which means that some of the women who work here can’t talk to people outside of this office about what they do here.
Ly Phearak: I talk to my mother about my work. At first she didn’t understand, but now she says, “Okay, I support that.” But my brother won’t change. He always says, “Bring this to me, bring that to me,” even when he is not busy. I asked him, “Who told you be like that?” He tries to do that to my sister too, which isn’t fair because she studies, and doesn’t have time to wait on him. He hits her too. When I am around I don’t allow this to happen. But when I am away, he does it.
Nil Kagnarith: It is difficult to fight, fight everything.
Why do you keep fighting?
Ly Pisey: We want to change the world, which will take more than just us, more than just one day.
Ly Phearak: If we don’t challenge, nothing will ever change! But if we challenge, at least people will hear and think about what we are saying. Then maybe in the future things will be different.
* Cambodia suffered genocide, the collapse of the Soviet Union (which provided financial support to Cambodia), and civil war from 1975 to 1993. In 1993, the United Nations sponsored national elections in Cambodia. This marked the beginning of capitalist development in Cambodia. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank loaned money to the Cambodia, imposing structural adjustment programs as conditions for those loans.
The idea of agriculture as a business was introduced in Cambodia as part of this process of structural adjustment. Farmers who formerly grew crops for subsistence and local trade (using simple and inexpensive inputs) began to sell cash crops for exports. This meant that farmers now needed to borrow money to buy fertilizers and other costly inputs to increase their land’s yield. The farmers’ indebtedness has increased their vulnerability: They have no control over the interest rates or conditions of their loans. Many farmers have little money left for their own food after making payments on their debts. Farmers are then encouraged to sell their land, their labor and their daughters to the wealthy few. As a Cambodian colleague explained, “More people have less, less people have more.”
Source: Socheata Sim, “WAC Report on the Health Status of Women Workers in the Cambodian Garment Industry,” March 2004.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. 2006
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