Cambodian women are speaking up for their rights; it’s time we listen

The women of Boeung Kak Lake protest the destruction of their homes in 2012 (pictured centre: famous land activist Tep Vanny)

The women of Boeung Kak Lake protest the destruction of their homes in 2012 (pictured centre: famous land activist Tep Vanny)

Reflecting on International Women’s Day, CCHR looks at the Cambodian women who are challenging gender norms by fighting for their rights

In every facet of society, women across the world continue to possess fewer advantages while enduring greater threats to their safety and well-being. The abuse of women’s rights is considered by some as the concern of women, and women alone. This is not a ‘women’s issue’, it is a human rights issue.[1] In Cambodia, the simple act of a woman speaking out can be seen as defiant and abhorrent. Nevertheless, brave female activists are raising their voices amidst ongoing attempts from the authorities to silence them. As people held flash-mobs to raise awareness of women’s rights ahead of International Women’s Day, events planned by civil society groups to encourage and empower women in prison had to be cancelled due to new restrictions.

“Women continue to face discrimination based on negative social expectations and stereotypes”

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Biography of Mrs. Hang Chenda, Land Activist in Preah Sihanouk Province

Hang Chenda: “I dream of seeing a Cambodia that is governed by the rule of law. I want justice and real democracy, and environmental sustainability.”

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Hang Chenda at a recent training workshop.

Hang Chenda has spent her life fighting for justice for those who have been unfairly evicted from their land and to end the environmental damage that accompanies it.

Chenda grew up in Ouorknha Heng commune, Prey Nub district, in Preah Sihanouk province. She lived with her father, an Officer at the Department of Public Works and Transportation, and her mother, a housewife, along with two brothers and four sisters. In 1980, she commenced her study in “Pum Kampenh”, a primary school in Preah Sihanouk province. However, given the family’s limited financial resources and her many siblings, Chenda ceased studying after fifth grade. Today, she has two children, and continues to reside in Preah Sihanouk province.

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Forced to Sign Away Their Rights

Over the past 10 days, two separate incidents have shown how far the situation facing human rights defenders (“HRDs”) is from meeting international human rights standards. Staff from two separate NGOs were arrested, held without charge and released only after signing “agreements,” which are little more than attempts by the government to stifle civil society and to restrict the ability of HRDs to promote and protect human rights.

On 9 September 2014, Ms. Meg Fukuzawa and Mr. Lida Sok, two employees of Equitable Cambodia, were investigating the human rights impacts of evictions that resulted from industrial sugarcane plantations in Oddar Meanchey province when police officers asked to accompany them to the police station where they were questioned for nearly 24 hours. Meg was only released after signing an agreement promising to not file a complaint over her detention. Equitable Cambodia, CCHR and other NGOs released a joint statement expressing our concerns over these arrests.

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23 Reasons to Protest

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Protesters outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, 30 May 2014

Our tuk-tuk slows to a halt on Charles de Gaulle Boulevard.  Five of us, who have been piled on the sweaty pleather seats for the last twenty minutes, jump out of the vehicle and take in the surroundings.  The area is already swarming with people: sleepy-eyed police officers and security guards half-heartedly manning the black metal barricades, trial attendees waiting for the court doors to open, and passersby heading to work.

It is Friday, May 30th, and we are awaiting the court verdict for 23 human rights defenders and garment factory workers who have been detained since the beginning of January.  They are accused of instigating violence during strikes calling for minimum wage increases.

During the three days of the trial, CCHR and other human rights organizations noted that the defendants’ rights were violated on several occasions. The 23 were denied bail despite health concerns, initial access to their legal team, and adequate medical care. In addition, there was a complete lack of incriminatory evidence presented during the hearing, and the judge expressed an extreme bias in favor of the prosecution throughout the trial.

Several local and international CCHR staff, including myself, have arrived to monitor the trial and the protests taking place outside. Those inside will determine whether or not the defendants’ fair trial rights are respected, while those outside will observe the protests, operating as witnesses in case they turn violent.

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