While working, I recently came across a famous Cambodian proverb, “Men are gold, women are white linen.” This saying implies that women are vulnerable and can be stained and ruined without ever being able to completely wash off the “stain.” However, if a man is gold, he will never wear out become tarnished. If gold becomes dirty, it is easily washed off; but if a white cloth becomes dirty, it will never be the same again. This proverb holds to be very true to societal attitudes about girls in much of Southeast Asia. A girl cannot integrate back into society if she has become “tarnished,” while a man can. Even if a girl is raped before marriage, she is considered “soiled” and a shame or disgrace on her family (Human Rights in Cambodia Project 6). Sometimes, families sell their child to the sex industry when she is no longer a virgin, because now she is considered worthless to them (Walsh 10).
I recently read an article entitled, “The Hidden Lives of Child Widows.” These young girls, sometimes younger than ten years old, are married off when they are children. Many parents justify this action because they think they are protecting their daughters from rape or kidnapping (which in turn means dishonor) by marrying them off early. These girls are usually married to an older man, who is more likely to die from old age or disease. When their husband dies, these girls cannot be accepted back into society, because they are now a “soiled white cloth”. Even their own parents will not take them back. They cannot participate in parties or gatherings, they have to wear white, and they cannot eat meat; but these things are the least of their worries. A child widow is left with no property, money, or way to survive. They often have to survive by sex-work or begging. They are occasionally left a child to take care of, even though they themselves are still a child (Owen).
Child widows are not the only ones that cannot integrate back into society. There are those that were raped, kidnapped, or thrown into the sex-trade. In Cambodia, “64% of prostitutes have been forced into prostitution, 53% were tricked by the prospect of a job, 11% were sold by family members and 0.5% of women were raped” (NGO Committee on CEDAW 53). When women survive these crimes, they are then considered a “fallen woman” and will have to withstand social scorn and family shame (Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights).
It astounds me how these women can be considered worthless to society. A girl has so much to give the world and so much life ahead of them. It is impossible for me to understand how anyone can think of these girls as “soiled white cloth” and leave them to the streets to survive by whatever means necessary. This famous Cambodian proverb is a way of thinking that degrades the human race. Each and every person deserves to be treated as an individual. These “soiled” girls will never get to show the world what they have to offer: their talents, feelings, ambitions, ideas, because they were never given the chance; because they were dirty.
Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, comp. Violence Against Women in Cambodia Report 2006. Rep. N.p.: n.p., 2006. Print.
Human Rights in Cambodia Project, comp. Violence Against Women : A Baseline Survey. Rep. Cambodia: n.p., 2005. Print.
The NGO Committee on CEDAW, and Cambodian Committee on Women, comps. The NGO Committee on CEDAW : Cambodia Shadow Report. Rep. N.p.: n.p., 2006. Print.
Owen, Margaret. “The Hidden Lives of Child Widows | OpenDemocracy.” The Hidden Lives of Child Widows | OpenDemocracy. N.p., 28 Feb. 2012. Web. 05 Aug. 2013. <http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/margaret-owen/hidden-lives-of-child-widows>.
Walsh, Melanie. Report on the Status of Cambodian Women: Domestic Violence, Sexual Assaults and Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation. Rep. N.p.: Institut D’Études Internationales De Montréal, 2007. Print.