In the ancient Angkorian times, women played an important role in society. They not only acted as the king's bodyguard but they also worked as astronomers, doctors and judges. They handled most of the country's trade. The typical market opened in the cool of the morning and closed at noon. Each woman laid out her goods on a mat - everything from food, rice, wine, and rum made from sugarcane to clothing, silver work and live animals. Although no money was known, they traded by barter, usually bartering rice. The women traders were known to be sharp traders, even sharper than the Chinese!
Modern Khmer society places great importance on the family and, within the traditional idea of the family, there are very established roles for the man and woman. The husband is considered to be the head of the family and is supposed to provide family members with shelter and food, while the wife takes charge of the family budget and all the tasks around the house. Traditionally, five is the desired number of children for a Cambodian family, however with the high Cambodian mortality rate, this means that women might have many pregnancies but might lose their children. Contraceptives are only available in the cities and, even then, are very difficult to obtain. Therefore, women often become pregnant even when they don't feel they are capable of having more children. Because the mother is so busy with all her responsibilities she often has to rely on her other children to assist in the care of her latest baby. Therefore, by the age of five, most children are expected to be able to take care of the younger children. Education has always been considered more important for boys than girls. In the past boys attended the local wat school in their village where they learned to read and write Khmer. They also studied the principles of Buddhism. However, girls were not admitted to wat schools. Although women are now admitted to nearly all the schools in Cambodia, people still believe that it is much more important for men to be educated than women. Therefore, if the family needs a child to leave school and help them at home, they will usually have their daughter drop out of school.
However, the fact that there has been so much fighting over the past twenty years means that there has been many changes in the structure of society. After the fighting decreased, because so many men had been killed, thousands of Cambodian women, particularly widows, found themselves in jobs traditionally occupied by men - for example, as village officials, shopkeepers, and in government departments. Similarly Cambodian men found new employment in the cities and along the Thai-Cambodian border as traders, artisans, and shopkeepers, jobs which used to belong to the Chinese and Vietnamese. However, many women have been left as widows with children to take care of and they have to try and eke out a precarious living in Phnom Penh. With 65% of the population being women, Cambodia has many woman-headed households. Most Cambodians live below the poverty line and struggle hard to find enough food for themselves and their children. In the late 1980's as many as one in four families of the rural population were headed by women widowed in the wars of the 1970's and 1980's.
Women have always worked as hard as, or harder than, men in agricultural tasks, and usually alongside them. However, today Cambodian suffers from a shortage of able-bodied men. Tens of thousands of able men are drawn away from productive work by service in the army and in labor battalions along the border.
Therefore women are now able to be involved in areas of society that they weren't able to be involved with before. However, they often have to struggle against the old prejudice of what roles are acceptable to women and can find it hard to raise their children in a still patriarchal society. Despite the population being comprised of 65% women, there were only two women voted into the National Assembly in the U.N. sponsored elections of 1993.
Even for urban women, most marriages are still arranged and obeying parents is of fundamental importance.
Historically, Cambodians believe that their country had been placed between a "tiger" and a "crocodile" and they have always had to be watching their borders with Thailand and Vietnam.
Although historically both Thailand and Vietnam have tried to make Cambodia into their tribute state, the Cambodians have generally felt a much deeper prejudice against the Vietnamese than against the Thai. Faced with a choice of domination by one power over the other, most nineteenth century Cambodians would probably have preferred the Thai, who were culturally similar to them and less demanding in peace time than the Vietnamese. The Thai king expected the Cambodian king to respect them and to send them tribute but left the Cambodian king free to appoint his own officials and govern Cambodia in his own way. However, the Vietnamese favored a model which was closer to the Chinese idea. They put their own officials into Cambodia, made the Cambodian officials learn Vietnamese, and asked them to bow in the direction of the distant Vietnamese emperor twice a month.
Immigration of the Vietnamese did not occur until much more recently. It largely dates from the period when Cambodia, like Vietnam, was a colony of France. During that time the French encouraged the Vietnamese to settle in Cambodia believing that they were harder workers than the Cambodians and would help the economy to develop.
In the 1980's, thousands of Vietnamese civilians settled in Cambodia. Accurate statistics are hard to obtain because the Vietnamese backed People's Republic of Kampuchea played down the numbers and those opposed to the Vietnamese occupation exaggerated them. A 1986 estimate put the number at 250,000 or less than 5% of the population. Many of the newcomers had lived in Cambodia before 1970 but just resumed their former activities such as shop keeping in Phnom Penh or commercial fishing in the Tonle Sap. Others were drawn into Cambodia because the conditions there were easier than in neighboring Vietnam. This immigration made many Cambodians nervous and Cambodians overseas who opposed the People's Republic of Kampuchea claimed that the immigrants were part of a Vietnamese plan to overpower Cambodia. However, after the withdrawal of the Vietnamese troops in 1989, there are still Vietnamese living in Cambodia though there are not nearly as many as factions like the Khmer Rouge would suggest. Currently, many of the Vietnamese are in very low-level jobs like fishing in the Tonle Sap and repairing bicycles, rather than in influential positions in politics or business.
Throughout the 1980s, the Khmer Rouge was very clever in its political propaganda. It presented itself as the symbol of Cambodian nationalist resistance to foreign control (i.e. to Vietnam). This was an appealing argument, especially since many Cambodians hated the Vietnamese. Prince Sihanouk said in 1989 "I would rather be eaten by a Khmer Rouge tiger than by a Vietnamese crocodile." This seems remarkable considering all the terrible things which the Khmer Rouge had done.
Until today the Khmer Rouge continues its ethnic hatred of the Vietnamese. In 1993 a massacre of 46 people occurred in a fishing village on the Tonle Sap. The occupants of the village were known to be ethnic Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge gunmen opened fire inside a small video parlor. Several years later, when the Khmer Rouge ambushed a train going to the Kompong Som in the south of Cambodia, they robbed people on the train and also looked for ethnical Vietnamese to kill. Anyone found on the train who they considered to be Vietnamese were killed. Because of such atrocities by the Khmer Rouge many Vietnamese fisher folk tried to return to Vietnam by the Tonle Sap. However, they were not allowed to return by the Vietnamese government.
It is obvious that the situation in Cambodia is difficult for the Vietnamese, so why don't they return to Vietnam? The problem is that many have lived in Cambodia for generations and consider it their home. They might not be able to speak any Vietnamese at all and the Vietnamese government considers them to be Cambodian citizens. Vietnam is an overcrowded, poor country already and the government does not want a flood of immigrants arriving from Cambodia who may have no way to support themselves. The Cambodian government has tried to establish documentation for Vietnamese who have been in Cambodia longer than two generations but because of the lack of birth certificates and the disruption of the Khmer Rouge regime it is very difficult to decide who has really been in Cambodia for a certain period of time.