Interview with Thavrith Chhuon

Gendercentric’s interview with Thavrith Chhuon, Gender Mainstreaming Officer, UNDP Partnership for Gender Equity with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Cambodia. Expertise: Gender Affairs, Electoral Affairs, and Research.

Gendercentric: Although ‘gender’ is a field that by definition concerns both women & men, the prevailing stereotype of gender experts world-wide is female. I have therefore been very impressed & surprised to find so many men working in this field in Cambodia? Does this situation indicate that Cambodia is ‘ahead of the game’? Or does it reflect a gender gap in educational opportunity & achievement between girls & boys?

Thavrith: I personally do not think Cambodia is ‘ahead of the game’. Traditional practice in Cambodia is that parents prefer to support their sons to get higher education than their daughters. Girls will be kept at home to assist in household chores. This results in the gap in educational opportunity of girls. The Royal Government of Cambodia has been working hard to promote more women into leadership roles and we can see more of them are taking these positions. Of course, can see more of them are taking these positions. Of course, it is impressive that men are working in the gender field, but I’m sure that in the near future all these positions will be filled by girls.

Gendercentric: could you tell us something about the personal & professional interests that drew you into this career path? And do you see this as a ‘job for life’ or as a transitional phase that will provide a good basis for other kinds of development work.

Thavrith: Education and my international experiences working within a multi-cultural context have shaped my perceptions differently in terms of social values, belief and attitude. I believe women can do things as men do, especially in income- generation for the household. And this matters very much in terms of power relations. So, I think working in this area would be very interesting. But I don’t think I will take it as a life-time job. Because of this work, I have learned a lot from different sectors, which will build myself for the future career.

Gendercentric: do you regard it as an advantage or a disadvantage to be male in a female dominated field either here in Cambodia or in the outside world?

Thavrith: I think it is advantageous. I don’t think it is wise if a group of women just come up and talk about their own issues, while those issues are very much related to men. However, people think differently. When they talk about ‘gender work’, it is women’s work and in most cases it is true here in Cambodia. This is why I’m not very much optimistic for the future of my work in this area. It is an interesting area though, but I have to prepare the exit strategy. Haha!

Gendercentric: And finally could you share some of your thoughts about the main challenges of this work in your own country context.

Thavrith: Many things, but the most challenging issue is that we are working to change the perceptions, behaviors and attitudes of the society on gender. And it will take decades just to do this work. As I mentioned earlier, people think this is women’s work. So, most men who are in leadership positions, do not get involved in this work. The promotion of gender equality will not be successful unless there is full participation, supports, and commitment from men. I am working with 27 line ministries & institutions and I can say this is a real challenge. There are many other challenges, but I am just picking up the few main ones. Cambodia has been working hard to promote gender equality once the government of the first mandate was established in 1993 with the assistance of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). And this is not very long at all. However, we have achieved very significant results, among others, women’s political participation, women in leadership positions, women’s economic empowerment, women’s health, education, We are also taking serious measures to deal with domestic violence, sexual harassment etc. So, we should not expect more than this. It is not a rocket science!

Gendercentric: Many thanks for your views & time, Thavrith. We are watching that space!