How land rights are politicising Cambodia's women

Land grabbing and forced evictions have created an activist movement among women who traditionally conform to strict gender roles.

Emily Wight
26 April 2015

In Cambodia, like the rest of the world, men and women play out their lives within the constraints of established gender norms and society is patriarchal. Family breadwinners are predominantly male and literacy rates are more than 10% lower among women than men. Levels of sexual violence are high: according to a 2013 UN report on violence against women in the Asia-Pacific region, one in five of Cambodian men admit to committing rape, and of these, more than 44 percent have never faced legal consequences.

But across the country women are rising up, and not solely in response to gender discrimination, but as part of a protest movement to protect their land from redevelopment and communities from forced evictions.

Since the Cambodian government standardised economic land concessions in 2001, whereby land is leased to companies usually for 70 years, international companies have forced ordinary people in both urban and rural areas to vacate their land in order to make way for development.

Land grabbing has escalated at an alarming rate: earlier this month, human rights organisation LICADHO released figures revealing that three times as many families were affected by land disputes last year as in 2013. Last year activists called on the International Criminal Court to probe mass evictions as a crime against humanity by the state.

Perhaps the most high profile case of forced evictions - and the protests against them - is the Boeung Kak area of capital Phnom Penh, 133 hectares, which were leased to private developer Shikaku Inc. in 2007. Boeung Kak was once a lake, the shores of which housed bustling backpacker hostels and bars. An estimated 20,000 residents lived in the nine surrounding villages, many of whom ran the businesses that benefited from tourism. But over the best part of a decade, many have lost their livelihoods and their homes. The lake has been filled with sand and, monsoon rains no longer having a basin to fill, the remaining homes often become flooded.

In Boeung Kak and other communities across the country, women have been organising the backlash for two reasons. One is because of their traditional role in the home: with husbands working, housewives have become more involved in their local communities and have had more time to collectivise. Another is that they believed they were less likely to face police violence than men.

Naly Pilorge, director of LICADHO, said: “Women tend to spend more time at home than men as it is men who generally go out to work. Cambodian women’s work tends to be more centred on the home, for example they may run a small shop or restaurant in front of their house. This means that it simply makes practical sense that they are the ones who take on the role of protecting the home.”

But like many other women, defending their rights has not been without risk. Many women have been arrested and imprisoned: most recently, in November, seven Boeung Kak activists were jailed for a year for blocking traffic during a protest. The day they were sentenced, four more protesters were jailed for a year outside their hearing. They were freed under a royal pardon earlier this month.

And in many cases, police have shown no qualms about reacting violently towards women protesters. Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Research Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said that police and district security guards have caused injuries requiring medical attention and even, in one case, a miscarriage: “There is no shortage of video footage showing protests being violently broken up”, he said.

He continued: "Amnesty International is calling on the Cambodian authorities to adhere to international standards on policing of assemblies and protests and refrain from unnecessary use of force and violence."

It’s not just authorities who threaten women’s wellbeing. According to a LICADHO report from November entitled “Good Wives: Women land campaigners and the impact of human rights activism”, women activists from both Phnom Penh and rural areas have complained of increased levels of domestic violence from partners since they started protesting, some leading to marriage breakdown. Four of the women interviewed said that their husbands gave them an ultimatum: stop campaigning or I’ll leave you. When some refused, husbands lashed out anyway.

“Many of the women summarised the impact of their campaigning on their lives by saying that before they started, they were “good wives” but that now they have little time to cook and clean and look after the family in the traditional way and so they can no longer describe themselves as such,” said the report.

Of course, other factors that put stress on relationships come into play. Evictions, or even just the threat of them, have taken a huge toll on families’ livelihoods and thus created a significant amount of financial concern. Women who often engage in casual work such as cleaning or selling food at the market no longer have time to make this extra money to support their families. Some interviewed take out large debts or push their children into rubbish collecting to survive.

But Cambodia’s women activists are far from victims; if anything, their newly adopted roles in the community make them less and less so. Many said that they felt empowered by their new roles in the community, and that their husbands failed to cope with this. Having been forced to take on active roles outside the home, they have also got used to standing up for themselves against their more dominant husbands.

They have gained confidence, a greater understanding of the world around them and they know their rights. Though gains are small, they are on the whole proud of what they’ve achieved.

Speaking to the Phnom Penh Post last year, predominant Boeung Kak activist Yorm Bopha said that women leaders across the world have influenced her: “I looked up to examples of women leaders – female politicians in countries like the USA and Australia and female NGO workers here, even (Cambodian opposition party politician) Mu Sochua.

These women inspired me”, she said. Hillary Clinton has been vocal in her support for the Boeung Kak activists, even honouring Tep Vanny -- one of the protesters who was recently jailed -- with a global leadership award in 2013.

Bopha added that she hopes she and her fellow activists can be seen as role models: “People are beginning to realise that Cambodian women can be strong, we can protest. If women see us when they read the newspaper, they might feel inspired to get involved in political issues, whereas before they might have just wanted to stay at home and be housewives.”

Pilorge from LICADHO recognised this too, saying that the tension women are facing between empowerment and submission marks how their generation represents a crucial shift away from female compliance. “It seems that they are not fully able to let go of the ideas that they grew up with about how they should behave despite feeling that the changes are positive. It is difficult to make predictions about the social changes that may flow from the actions of these women but I think it is likely that it will be easier for the younger generation of men and women to accept that women can fulfil a variety of roles and participate more widely in decision-making in the home and in the public sphere and that women’s activism will play some part in this change.”

She added: “Women activists, particularly those who lead their communities, have gone beyond the traditional role assigned to Cambodian women of caring for the home and the family.”


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