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Activists and sex workers march in Phnom Penh yesterday to raise awareness of discrimination against sex workers ahead of International Women’s Day. UNITED SISTERHOOD ALLIANCE
Activists and sex workers march in Phnom Penh yesterday to raise awareness of discrimination against sex workers ahead of International Women’s Day. United Sisterhood Alliance

Events call for equal rights

Human rights organisations called for an end to discrimination against women at a raft of events yesterday ahead of today’s International Women’s Day.

The Women’s Network for Unity (WNU) organised a march that was joined by about 70 sex workers and women’s rights activists to raise awareness about sex workers’ lives and rights, strengthen solidarity and demand to be free from harm and violence.

The half-hour march included women from different areas in Phnom Penh, many of whom carried red umbrellas – an international symbol for sex workers’ rights, according to Pech Polet, managing director of WNU. “What they are demanding is that sex work is [recognised as] work, and sex workers are humans. Sex workers’ rights are women’s rights,” she said.

Discrimination against sex workers, she said “is getting worse and worse from day to day”, and the death of sex worker Pen Kunthea “still affects the sex workers today”. Kunthea drowned on January 1 while being chased by security guards in Phnom Penh’s riverside area.

Boeung Kak lake activists, meanwhile, celebrated Women’s Rights Day yesterday near the Boeung Kak mosque, despite an order by the government not to do so.

“We still did it because it is legal and we don’t do anything against the government,” activist Bov Sophea said.

She said that more than 200 people came to “ask the government to respect human rights.” She said they also called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to release activist Tep Vanny as a “present” for International Women’s Day.

At an event by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, female rights activists – including cis- and transgender women – yesterday pointed to the obstacles they encountered when advocating for labour, environmental and land rights. Executive director Chak Sopheap said women were often perceived as “second-class citizens” under Cambodian social norms.

“Domestic violence and abuse, the exclusion of women from leadership positions in business, politics and public life, and the widespread perceptions of women as being weaker than men, are all symptoms of the same heteropatriarchal system that still rules Cambodia.”

Though “more and more women are taking up leadership positions, both in business and public life … more continue to be oppressed,” she said, pointing to imprisoned activists Vanny and Lim Mony, and drowned sex worker Kunthea as examples.

Today, the Cambodian Food and Service Worker Federation (CFSWF) will hold a workers’ rights event that will highlight women’s rights issues at work, according to CFSWF vice president Ou Tepphallin.

She said women faced multiple issues, including having to support their families and take care of their children and parents while also working. Moreover, she highlighted that women who worked at karaoke bars or in restaurants had to work until late at night. When going home, she said, “they are not feeling safe when they walk, so they need to run”, because some areas “are dangerous at night”.

Speeches to highlight the importance of women were also held at the Senate, the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Ministry of Social Affairs, CMAC and City Hall, where employees will have the day off today for the holiday.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY LAY SAMEAN

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