Apsara dancers, figures of Hindu mythology, Angkor Temple.
The Chbab Srey is a code of conduct for women (Chbab is Khmer for code, and Srey for woman). In the form of a poem, it describes how a woman should behave, with a special focus on her attitude towards her husband.
“Don’t bring the outside flame into the house and then burn it.
Your skirt must not rustle while you walk.
You must be patient and eat only after the men in your family have finished.
You must serve and respect your husband at all times and above all else.
You can’t touch your husband’s head without first bowing in respect.
School is more useful for boys than girls.” Chbab Srey.
This code of conduct has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries, and is still considered to be the basis of the representation of gender roles in Cambodia. It was formally taught in school until in 2007, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs demanded it be pulled from the school’s curriculum. Nevertheless, only some of the rules were removed, meaning some of it is still taught, which shows how influential this text remains to this day.
Chbab Srey is still passed from mothers to daughters, and is widely influential, especially in rural areas where it is deeply rooted into the perception of gender roles.
One of the rules of Chbab Srey states that women should refrain from sharing what happens in the household outside of home. This makes reporting cases of domestic or sexual violence for women particularly challenging.
“Be respectful towards your husband.
Serve him well and keep the flame of the relationship alive.
Otherwise, it will burn you.
Do not bring external problems into the home.
Do not take internal problems out of the home,” Chbab Srey.
Today, Chbab Srey is no longer as important as it used to be, as more and more women are challenging the traditional gender norms. Nonetheless, it remains a barrier to gender equality, as shown in a study by Partners For Prevention, an umbrella group of UN agencies working on gender based violence in Asia. When participants were asked if people should be treated equally regardless of whether they are male or female, almost all of them agreed. But then, over 95% of them then agreed that a woman should obey her husband, and over 80% of them agreed that a woman’s most important role is to take care of her home and cook for her family.
Cambodia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEADW) in 1992. The committee in charge of monitoring the progress of the country (Committee on the elimination of Discrimination against Women) noted in its observation in 2013 that they were: “concerned that the Chbab Srey, the traditional code of conduct for Women is deeply rooted in Cambodian culture and continues to define everyday life on the basis of stereotypical roles of women and men in the family and in society”
Men also have their code of conduct which encourages them to be strong decision-makers, brave, etc. Their rules are far less strict and mainly promote leadership. While Chbab Srey mostly focuses on obeying the husband, Chbab Proh barely refers to the wives.
 Why do some men use violence against women and how can we prevent it, findings from the multi country study on men and violence in Asia and the Pacific, Cambodia Report, UN Women Cambodia, Partners for Prevention, June 2015 – http://www.partners4prevention.org/sites/default/files/resources/p4p_cambodia_report_final_english_version.pd
 Concluding observations on the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Cambodia – CEDAW – Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women – October 2013 – http://evaw-global-database.unwomen.org/-/media/files/un%20women/vaw/country%20report/asia/cambodia/cambodia%20cedaw%20co.pdf
To learn more about Chbab Srey and Chbab Proh:
World Affairs: “Taught to be worthless”
Equaltimes: “The perfect Cambodian Woman”
The Phnom Penh Post: “Trying to be a perfect woman”
Partners For Prevention: “Why do some men use violence against women and how can we prevent it, findings from the multi country study on men and violence in Asia and the Pacific, Cambodia Report”