‘Men are like gold and women are like white cloth’.
This well-known Cambodian proverb captures something of the gender disparity that continues to oppress millions of women in the country. Gold, no matter how tarnished it becomes, can be easily cleaned, polished and restored to its original value. White cloth however, once stained is ruined. For a single Cambodian woman the stains that render her worthless in her culture’s eyes refer to the shame of sexual impurity. When a single woman finds herself pregnant, regardless of the circumstances, she is often shunned, rejected by her family, and left alone with little means of support. Many single women facing a crisis pregnancy not only experience gender disparity in society’s rejection of them, but their pregnancy is often the result of gender based violence such as sexual assault and trafficking.
ACCI field workers Katrina and Paul Gliddon founded Mother’s Heart to provide crisis pregnancy counselling and support to women in such a position. Mother’s Heart provides antenatal care, counselling, assists women access vocational training, find employment, suitable housing and assists them with the delivery of their baby. Mother’s Heart has also established a day care facility to enable the women to return to work to generate an income to raise their children.
Whilst it is vital to provide immediate services to women experiencing a crisis pregnancy, Mother’s Heart also recognizes that it is equally important to address the underlying social attitudes towards women and tackle the stigma and ostracism they face. To this end Mother’s Heart developed the Community Reintegration Program, which seeks to:
• Address family breakdowns due to gender-based shame issues. Mother’s Heart works with immediate and extended family members to address shame and rejection and where possible see women restored to their families. Once restored, women are able to benefit from family and community-based support networks which greatly enhances the wellbeing of both the women and their children.
• Address community attitudes towards the value of women. Staff work specifically with male village leaders and elders in order to encourage them to be accepting of women returning to their community, which in turn influences the attitudes of the whole community and reduces the likelihood of ongoing discrimination and ostracism.
Mother’s Heart believe that crisis pregnancy and related family rejection is a gender issue which requires shifts in both men and women’s attitudes regarding the worth and value of women. Women are not white linen who should be so easily devalued and discarded, and changing this perception is critical to ending the gender based violence and discrimination that affects so many Cambodian women today.