New York, NY – Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), the leading Jewish international development and human rights organization, issued the following statement in advance of First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit to Cambodia:
“I commend First Lady Michelle Obama for her historic trip to Cambodia this week to promote the Administration’s ’Let Girls Learn’ initiative. While Mrs. Obama is in Cambodia, we are certain that she will look carefully at several related issues that pose significant barriers to girls’ and women’s success and wellbeing—such as gender-based violence, dangerous and abusive working conditions in the garment industry, and restrictions on political freedom and participation.
Education and empowerment can go a long way, but unless women and girls can learn, work, and express their views safely and openly, they cannot lead, and transformational change will be out of reach.
We urge the First Lady to pay particular attention to gender-based violence, which is a persistent problem for women and girls throughout Cambodian society. In recent surveys, one in ten Cambodian women say they have been raped or sexually assaulted. More than 50 percent of garment workers surveyed have been harassed or witnessed harassment in factories. Nearly a third of women and 27 percent of men believe that sometimes women deserve to be beaten.
Cambodia has an array of laws on the books that outlaw domestic violence, harassment in the workplace and other forms of abuse, yet this hasn’t deterred perpetrators. Ninety-four percent of men polled in one study said they know about the laws, but 32.8 percent have committed physical or sexual violence anyway.
When Mrs. Obama meets with Cambodian civil society leaders this week, we urge her to ask these leaders how they are addressing these critical issues. We are deeply gratified that the First Lady is shining the light on local efforts, and we are proud that our partners in the region are doing their part: for example Worker’s Information Centre (WIC) is helping garment workers unionize and advocate for better workplace protections, including regulations against harassment.
For Let Girls Learn to be successful, girls need more than just books, teachers and other resources; they must have the support of families and communities that respect their bodies, their opinions and their right to live without fear.
We call on Mrs. Obama and the Administration to pair their admirable educational initiative with support for global efforts to stop gender-based violence, such as the International Violence Against Women Act, which we hope will pass Congress and arrive on the President’s desk this year.
It is only by upholding the spectrum of human rights of girls that they will truly have the security and freedom necessary to learn and lead.”
 All statistics in this statement are from research referenced in UNDP’s 2014 report: Violence Against Women and Girls. Cambodia Gender Assessment.
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