A week in Phnom Penh with Dr Susan Carland and Cambodia’s feminist community
March 3, 2017
It’s hard not to fangirl over Dr Susan Carland – she’s pretty much a feminist superhero. She’s a lecturer in gender studies, politics and sociology at Monash University and has a PhD (which is about to become a book) discussing how Western Muslim women fight sexism within their own traditions and communities. She was a founding member of SBS’s Salam Café, and a regular political and media commentator on international feminist issues.
A couple of weeks ago, we were lucky enough to be joined by Susan and her daughter on a trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Susan spent some time meeting Cambodia’s feminist community and building international feminist solidarity ahead of International Women’s Day.
“I’ve spent days listening to female politicians, journalists, activists, and garment-factory workers talk about what it’s like for women in their industry, their motivations, what they want to change, and their hopes for the future…The thing that struck me the most is the tenacity of these women is so remarkable and so inspiring. These are unforgettable stories of resilience, passion, determination, hardship, and success,” said Susan.
Here are just a few of the sHEROes we met.
Hon Mu Suchua: A hugely inspirational member of Parliament
Working in politics is very hard for women in Cambodia – only 20% of National Parliament seats are held by women, and local and commune levels have ever fewer women.
We met several amazing MPs when we were in Cambodia, and Mu Suchua’s story is just one of many inspirational journeys. A lifelong political activist/politician for the Cambodian National Rescue Party, Mu Suchua was semi-exiled from the country for 18 years. When she returned, she was elected Minister for Women and ran a program that encouraged 12,000 women to run for commune level positions. Nine percent of these women were elected and she then worked with them to get elected at a district level, giving them bikes so they could commute between villages for their campaigning.
She’s influenced family violence laws, fought against corporate land grabs and advocated for sex workers and people living with HIV. We also found out that Mu Suchua’s daughter is one of the founding members of FRIDA, an amazing fellow feminist organisation doing great things. What a family.
Ros Sopheap: Cambodia’s foremost feminist commentator
We could write sonnets about how much we love this woman. As the Executive Director of IWDA Gender and Development Cambodia (GADC), she’s a long-time advocate for gender equality, and one of the go-to voices for women’s rights in Cambodia. GADC act as an intermediary between government and civil society, lending their technical expertise on areas like gender-based violence to government and non-government organisations alike.
Thanks to women like Sopheap, women from all levels of society are being included in the national conversation about women’s rights. The respect for Sopheap in Cambodia is incredible. When we met with women MPs, they all said ‘we didn’t really know what to expect when we came here today, but if Sopheap ever asks us to do anything, we always say yes without even questioning.’ Many also credited Sopheap and GADC as part of their success, saying the community conversations series and the campaigning training they received from GADC helped them get into politics.
United Sisterhood Alliance: Working to change the broken system of the garment sector in Cambodia
Textiles are big business in Cambodia. The multi-billion dollar export industry employs roughly 700,000 workers. Yet these workers, 90% of whom are women, face long hours, low wages and exploitative conditions.
United Sisterhood Alliance do so many things, but a big part of their work is trying to raise the voice of women workers to stand up for their rights and demand change. Drop-in centres for garment workers serve as a safe place and provide female garment workers with advice, legal assistance, as well as the resources to critically analyse their employers and the garment industry in a global context. These women have recently worked on ground breaking cases in Cambodia, securing back-pay for women garment workers who have been underpaid or cheated by short term contracts.
Thareth and Sophorth of United Sisterhood Alliance accompanied us for a tour around the garment factory workers’ living quarters, which was, as you can imagine, an eye opening experience. The facilities are very basic. The complex is made up of rows of small, dark, windowless rooms, not much bigger than a queen sized bed, and usually inhabited by 3-4 people each. Around twelve toilets for almost 1,000 people. There is limited access to medicine and hygienic food.
We also got a chance to talk to Helen, who left her village to become a garment worker to support her family to repay their debts after her dad got sick. She’s been attending the drop-in centres, and is now an expert on workplace rights. She talked openly and bravely with us about the conditions she works in, at the garment factory, which are exploitative and very unregulated. Helen said that even when the occasional inspector does swing by, the factory owners are informed in advance and are able to trick the system.
When we asked her what we could be doing as international citizens, she said she wants us to pressure brands to actually apply the codes of conduct they’ve all signed up to which, at this stage, aren’t having much impact on women’s lives. We also spoke with other workers at the drop in centre who are working 6 days a week, learning English in the evenings and studying law on Sundays. The stories of these workers were incredibly moving, but their strength, bravery and resilience was amazing to see.
Kuch Naren: A female politics journalist in a male-dominated media space
Journalism can be a male-dominated field in many countries, Australia included, and women in the Cambodian media face even great barriers. Getting a job is hard enough – then they have to navigate the sexism from people who don’t want to speak to a woman, the safety of trying to get scoops in dangerous situations, and the victim-blaming nature of Cambodia’s media outlets. Kuch Naren is a journalist for Cambodia Daily, and is determined to address the industry’s sexism.
She’s traipsed through the jungle for 10 hours by herself to cover land rights protests by indigenous groups. But her long-term goal is to change the way women are represented in Cambodian media.
“When women are raped or killed the media says ‘what was she wearing,’ ‘was she being promiscuous,’ ‘why was she out so late’ or they blame their mothers for not raising them to be good humble girls,” Naren said.
In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, it was beyond inspiring to be with Susan and meet such a wide array of women speaking up for their rights in different ways. International Women’s Day celebrates all women, in all their diversities. We embrace all their facets and intersections, and stand with them as part of a global movement.
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