Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

CAMBODIA: Decades After, Widows Battle the Demons of War

Sam Rith*

BATTAMBANG, Cambodia, Mar 27 2005 (IPS) - Sitting on a hammock made from water hyacinth, 65- year-old widow Srey La rests her chin on her hands and looks out at her four grandchildren, a daughter and a son-in-law sleeping in the shade.

The narrow gaps in the woven stick walls of her farmland lean-to cast a matrix of shadow and sunlight on her face as she lights a roughly rolled cigarette.

”I very much pity myself. I have never taken even a day’s rest. My livelihood has not changed since the country achieved peace in 1979,” she says during a midday break from watermelon farming on her one-hectare property in this city in north-west Cambodia.

”Everything remains the same, working in the morning but ending up without enough in the evening. It seems I get nothing from peace besides being able to farm, walk and do something freely – not under someone’s command,” continues Srey La.

La is one of tens of thousands of women who were made widows by the 1975-79 rule of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

A government health survey in 1998 found that 5.2 percent of adult women were widows. The minister of women’s and veterans’ affairs, Ing Kantha Phavi, says the number of matriarchal households has already decreased from a quarter of all families in 1998 to 19 percent today.

Still, life continues to be tough for many women who lost their husbands during Cambodia’s conflicts.

La’s village of O’kambot is one of the poorest in Aek Phnom district, says village chief Eam Phan. He says that 91 of the village’s 390 families are headed by widows, many struggling to survive under the pressure of debt and sustenance farming.

La’s husband died in 1978, leaving her to look after their 11 children. During the days of the Khmer Rouge, she remembers receiving just one ladle of watery porridge per meal, of which she sucked only the water and kept the rice in a pocket to feed her children.

When Pol Pot’s militia caught her hiding rice, they accused her of betraying the revolution, and threatened to kill her.

Today, nine of her children have married and La has 33 grandchildren, some of whom help her work on the farm. Others work as construction labourers.

As the matriarch of the household, however, La continues to shoulder the burden of her family’s situation.

Each morning La wakes at four and walks about 10 kilometres to get to her watermelon farm. After working on the farm, she makes the three-hour journey home in the evening. ”Sometimes I sleep here when I am too exhausted. If my husband was still alive, life would not be difficult like today,” she sighs.

The recently harvested rice crop yielded just enough to pay the landowner the 300 kilogrammes of rice he takes each year as land rental fee, and La says the profits she makes from growing watermelons will go mostly to pay off debts.

Stories like that of La show how the demographic imbalance, which occurred as a result of conflict and the death of a large number of men, forced women to take on exceptional responsibilities in post-conflict Cambodia.

”Many women were unprepared after the loss of their husbands for the burden of being the sole income earners,” says Kek Galabru, president of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. ”Women (often) had to bring up several young children of their own and sometimes the orphaned children of friends and relatives as well.”

Sim Mary, acting director of the Battambang Provincial Department of Women Affairs, says 30,300 of Battambang’s 179,574 families are headed by widows.

Mary estimates that the Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for 60 percent of those widows, while 20 percent was due to the civil war in the 1980s. The others lost their husbands to diseases such as malaria and AIDS.

Families headed by widows are typically poor because they work alone to support the family and may have a lot of children, she says. Usually, they do not have their own assets for farming, or have sold everything to care for their families.

She estimates that about seven percent of widows in Battambang have their own land to farm or plant rice, 20 percent use relatives’ land and 10 to 13 percent rent others’ land. Some go to work in neighbouring Thailand or have small businesses at home.

Chan Seoum, 69, lives in O’kambot. Without her own land to farm, she plants mushrooms and prepares kapok fruit and leaves for making incense sticks. She pays her neighbours to use the produce of their kapok trees. ”When my son-in-law goes to work far away from home, I climb up the kapok trees myself,” she says. ”I am afraid of falling down, but the hunger urges me to climb. If I don’t climb, I will have to face hunger.”

In 1977, Seoum’s husband – a former soldier – was taken away by Khmer Rouge cadres, ostensibly to plow rice fields with others in Battambang. But a few days later, word drifted back that her husband had been killed along with several other people.

”I don’t know why they killed my husband,” she says, but adds she is still ”waiting” for him to come home. She has no radio or television at home and says she has never heard of efforts to establish a Khmer Rouge tribunal, which reports say might finally become reality in late 2006.

But she welcomes the prospect of justice: ”They killed my husband like cattle. If they have a Khmer Rouge trial, I hope that (senior KR leaders) are punished with life imprisonment.”

”As Buddha said, if someone commits wrongdoing, they will receive bad karma in return. If there is no punishment, it motivates perpetrators to continue committing crimes and will be a bad example to the younger generation,” she adds.

Despite her own poverty, Seoum thinks that money would be better spent on a Khmer Rouge trial, rather than on aid because she is convinced the funds would actually reach the poor.

But Eou Leing, 59, disagrees, saying that she would like the government to put money into directly helping needy people instead of conducting a tribunal. ”It’s of no help,” she says of the upcoming trial.

Leing, of Trapang Chor village, Staung district in Kampong Thom province north of the capital Phnom Penh, was separated from her husband soon after the Khmer Rouge took control in 1975. She was told that he, a government soldier – died of illness in 1977.

Two years later, Khmer Rouge cadres told Leing she was on a list of people to be killed on Jan.10, 1979. A mass grave had already been dug.

They accused her of sheltering a government soldier. Scared, she plotted to flee into the jungle but was saved by the invasion of Vietnamese soldiers into Cambodia to boot the Khmer Rouge out.

The soldier she once sheltered is still alive, working in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit. He visits her frequently.

To this day many widows have never had the chance to properly grieve, explains Om Yentieng, advisor to Hun Sen and president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee. ”During the Khmer Rouge period, there was nothing more pitiful than killing someone’s husband or father and prohibiting them to shed a tear.”

Says Kek Galabru: ”The experience of the last 25 years of war and conflict somehow seems to have affected women more than men, and it has taken women longer to recover.”

(*Sam Rith of the ‘Phnom Penh Post’ wrote this story under a media programme on reporting on conflict, with IPS Asia-Pacific and the Japan Foundation.)

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