Cambodia's Abandoned Families

In villages across Cambodia, years of genocide and civil war have cast women, who make up two-thirds of the population, onto the margin of daily survival

TUCKED along a main highway leading out of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, this hamlet is an enclave of widows.

Behind the more prosperous wooden houses in the village still known by its name as a farming collective, Toun Sary and three other middle-aged women raise fatherless families in four miserable wooden shacks.

One recent day, Ms. Toun Sary borrowed more than 20 pounds of rice to feed her six children. The woman, who lost six other children to starvation during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, agreed to pay an astronomical $1.50 in interest on the food loan.

After Vietnam invaded Cambodia to drive out the radical Marxists in 1979, "my husband said he was going somewhere to open a noodle shop," she recalls. "But then he married someone else and disappeared."

Next door, Eou Penoh watches her daughter Kim Poav nurse her new baby. The hard, cracked land outside belongs to a landlord, says the woman whose husband died of overwork under the Khmer Rouge regime.

Her hut, decorated with garish posters of Chinese actors and actresses, has holes in the roof, floor, and walls, but "at least it's cool," she says with a wan smile. "I know of so many women with no husbands in Cambodia."

Like in so many villages across Cambodia, years of genocide and civil war have cast the women of Six-Mile Commune onto the margin of daily survival.

One in every five families in the area is headed by a woman, a percentage that climbs as high as 30 percent for the country as a whole, say officials with the United Nations and private aid and development agencies. Almost two-thirds of Cambodia's 8 million people are women.

In a tradition-bound society in which women were relegated to a secondary status and economic role, the inordinate number of fatherless families further complicates the difficult peace and recovery process in Cambodia, observers say.

"It's almost a fact of life that the woman standing in front of you is a widow," says Sochua Mu Lieper, who heads Khemara, a nongovernment organization assisting women and children near Phnom Penh.

Some diplomats and UN officials worry that the most desperate Cambodians will fall through the cracks of the already troubled international peace plan.

Overseeing an ambitious accord to disarm rival armies, temporarily administer the country, repatriate 360,000 Cambodian refugees in Thailand, and hold a national election next year, the UN is facing stiff resistance from the Khmer Rouge. The guerrillas are blamed with the deaths of more than a million Cambodians by execution, starvation, and overwork in the 1970s.

Recently, the Marxist guerrillas have blocked the UN agreement by refusing to disarm and send part of its Army to a cantonment, claiming that rival Vietnam still has troops in the country. The Vietnamese withdrew most of their Army from Cambodia in 1989, although diplomats say some advisers remain.

Some UN officials and international aid workers worry that tens of thousands of Cambodians facing hardship at home or pushed off their land by fighting and flooding last year will suffer as the international effort gives top priority to returning refugees in time for a planned May 1993 election.

Having resolved the diplomatic standoff in this onetime cold-war battlefield, the international community is likely to lose interest in this devastated nation, observers say.

"The problem is everything is now focused on repatriation," says John Vyghen who oversees food distribution to nonrefugee groups for the UN World Food Programme. "But in another year, it will all be over and the old rivalries, tensions, and problems will still be there."

One plus, observers say, is that widowed and abandoned women are still provided for in some villages despite the breakup of collectivized farms in 1989.

In the village of Mongkol north of Phnom Penh, Moav, a widow with three small children, says she gets help from her neighbors and two sisters living nearby.

"They give me rice and meat for living, and I work in the rice fields," she says.

But this support system is endangered as Cambodia's largely rural population is lured to the cities by the UN presence and madcap economic development, observers say.

"In the villages, Cambodia is so underdeveloped, there is nothing to tie people down," says Ms. Lieper of Khemara, which is trying to provide credit and assistance to Cambodian women along the lines of the Grameen Bank's development policies in Bangladesh.

"In the years ahead, there will be many, many more drifters," she says. "The safety net still exists in small villages. But as people move closer to the cities, it's almost nonexistent."

Indeed, skyrocketing land prices in Phnom Penh are steadily pushing the poor to the outskirts and creating a ring of desperation around the Cambodian capital.

For many women who head families, there is no alternative but to band together.

At Six-Mile Commune, Oun Sophal and her small son live with two other families, both fatherless, in a ramshackle clapboard hut.

Her husband, who fought for the Phnom Penh government, died of malaria two years ago. When she can, she earns about 50 cents a day collecting rice shucks. "My only support is myself," she says. "If my son is sick and I have to stay home, there is no money."

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