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Gender equality and equity are minister's aims

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Minister Mu Sochea

An interview with Her Excellency Mu Sochua, Minister for Women's and Veterans' Affairs

By Caroline Green

Tell me something about your background and what inspired you to enter politics?

I was born and raised in Cambodia until I finished high school. Because of the

war my next opportunity for education was abroad, so I went to France in 1972 for

a year and a half then in 1974 I went to California.

In 1975 I became a refugee like everybody else and continued as a student until achieving

my Masters degree in social work from UC Berkeley, graduating in 1981. Then I came

straight back to Cambodia and within a week was in the refugee camps on the Cambodian-Thai

border, working with the UN's border relief operation. I was in charge of education

and social services for women and children.

In 1989 I returned to Phnom Penh with my children and husband. I was away from home

for 18 years and had always dreamed about returning, and had nightmares not knowing

how my parents died. When I came home I found out that they starved to death in Battambang.

In 1991 I founded the NGO Khemara and was involved in the peace movement. I was one

of the founders of the women's movement in this country. I was not looking at politics

- I was really looking at women building a voice for the election.

Many people asked me to join political parties during the 1993 campaign but I refused

because I wanted to build the voice of the people and thought I was too young to

be in politics.

I stayed with Khemara until 1995 when preparations for the fourth world conference

on women in Beijing got me into politics. I wanted to enter politics to transform

it. It could be a very naïve thought but if every politician thought of the

role they have to perform and the promises they made to the voters I think politics

could be transformed.

In 1995 Prince Ranariddh gave me a position as his advisor. In 1998 I won a seat

as a member of parliament on the Funcinpec list and my party gave me this post.

What are the main issues in your portfolio of women's and veteran's affairs?

Gender equality and equity. The law states that we are equal as men and women

but how do you transform laws into reality? You do it by raising awareness about

equality and respect for each other and protection of people's rights.

The role of the ministry is also as an advocate and catalyst for women to transform

and take hold of their lives. In Cambodia the word advocate does not exist. Advocacy

literally means a struggle for your thoughts. This really describes liberation of

women in any part of the world.

The ministry also promotes gender equity. It is not enough to say: 'Yes I understand

I have rights' but how are women going to use them when they have fewer choices than

boys and less chance to stay through school all the way to tertiary level?

Young women drop out because of gender issues. Every day newspaper headlines are

about rape and gender-based violence. Because of the lack of opportunities from day

one, women miss out for the rest of their lives. It is time to say to policy makers

and the public that we need to protect our girls, not just in a formal way.

The victims of gender-based violence are as young as three, and younger and younger

girls are being forced into prostitution. Education is not just about formal structures,

it is about society changing its values. Men and boys belong in the kitchen as much

as girls do.

June 1 was International Children's Day. Children spoke to the National Assembly,

recommending several changes including increasing law enforcement for child abusers

and traffickers and increasing the age of incarceration. As the deputy chair of the

National Council for Children what do you think about these suggestions and the state

of children in Cambodia?

The idea for the National Assembly meeting came from a young woman Princess Rattana

Devi, Norodom Ranariddh's daughter. She had the vision that children are not just

shadows of adults. If we want to make our country stable we have to hear the voices

of all.

The children's recommendations are a clear sign that we have not heard the children

speak, that their lives are different to what we as politicians have designed. We

had to admit that if we continued to assume we know about children's lives then we

would continue on the wrong path.

There should be one day every week where children speak in parliament. The population

of Cambodia is very young - every year 200,000 people are born. Society changes and

children will become young adolescents and the gap between them and us as politicians

is so great. The only way to fill it is to make them leaders, let them be policy

makers. The law says election candidates need to be 25 years old, but I believe there

should be youth candidates in future elections.

Turning to women's issues, LICADHO recently produced a report detailing terrible

conditions for mothers and their children in prison. The report found that mothers

and most prison officials did not know about the women's rights - is your ministry

looking into this?

We are working with the Ministry of Interior and looking into reforms, with support

from the Australian government. Because of the lack of sensitivity of the judiciary

system there are cases of women who are convicted because of self-defense.

There is a specific case of a woman who was raped and battered again and again by

her husband and when he was about to mistreat her and kill her, she killed him with

a knife and is now in prison. We are talking about vulnerability and gender-based

violence. For us it is preventing violence against women, protecting rights, giving

services to women so they get justice and eventually, reintegrating them into society.

What are the most pressing issues affecting women in Cambodia now?

Society has to change its mentality. A woman's role is not just about raising

children, being a good mother, the mother of the universe. A man's role is also about

being the father of the universe.

For a woman it is about making safe choices for herself and not letting anyone else

make those choices. Does she have a chance to say: 'No, that is not the man I want

to marry' or 'I want to stay in school'? If those choices are open to men they should

also be open to women. It is the only way for long-term development in Cambodia.

Look at garment factory workers, the majority of whom are women. They don't have

choices and in the next five years if they stay in the same position without anyone

to help them increase their capacity, education and skills, they will be kicked out

and replaced and left on their own.

Due to the closure of karaoke bars many sex workers have been forced onto the

streets and NGOs say this is making them much more susceptible to violence and rape

- do you think this is the case?

Yes, the ministry has been extremely vigilant about the vulnerability of sex workers

who are in the lower level, cheaper brothels because the clientele are very volatile.

Women are less likely to be protected, and brutality from police and brothel owners

is common. When the brothel or karaoke bar owners are pressured to close, this trickles

down to the sex workers and they have less and less protection.

What role did you play in trying to get Gary Glitter out of Cambodia and why?

I stand on principle. When I see children so vulnerable to sexual abuse, do you

think I am going to sit here and risk having Gary Glitter commit the same crimes

here as he committed in his country? As politicians we must deliver.

If the life of a child is already stained at age three, we can't say proudly that

we are good politicians. I will do anything to make sure all children and women are

protected. I'm not sitting here to make wishes, I made them a long time ago and I'm

here to make them come true by using the little power I have.

As one of only two women in government, what are the challenges you face and how

can female representation be increased?

One of the challenges is to convince men that I'm not expecting to change society

in one day. I'm like a salesperson. First of all the buyers have to be informed and

then I have to convince them they are putting their money into the right product

and can get something out of it. Male politicians have been very supportive because

they also see the need for change. All of us need to be committed to make it happen,

and we can only do this when there is money.

We need to convince society that as we talk about the rights of women, we also deliver

in our activities, as politicians and as members of parliament. Male politicians

must see themselves as equal to women. I have support but my agenda is very heavy;

not everyone will buy my product. The change has to come from women, and political

parties also need to be more generous and open in their policies to include women.

Fewer than 5 percent of commune council members are women. Do you find this disappointing

given the pre-election rhetoric of the importance of grassroots female representation?

Of course I am disappointed, but I have not given up. We have kept up the challenge

and turned over a new page in the history of Cambodia and the presence of women can

never be ignored.

There is a lot of work to be done within Funcinpec and all the parties to ensure

that we double the amount of female representation for the elections in 2003. Every

woman elected is a success and a step towards seeing the light at the end of the

tunnel.

Looking at veterans affairs - two NGOs said recently that young people are not

taking care of the elderly, many of whom are war veterans, and the high cost of healthcare

is forcing older people to choose between going without treatment or selling their

family's means of livelihood. What needs to be done?

It comes to services. Compared to the elderly in the Western world, our elderly

have a much better chance in terms of psychological, emotional and mental status

because of the extended family.

But at the same time, because of HIV/AIDS and poverty many parents have died and

elderly people are looking after orphans and becoming sole supporters. That is very

stressful. The community is not looking after them like it used to and services are

not free. It is a cycle of poverty. The elderly are really neglected because they

are not in the majority and so not the priority for policy.

Funcinpec seems to be having severe internal problems, with Prince Norodom Chakrapong

recently forming a new party and a second group of party members reportedly leaving

this week. Is this damaging to Funcinpec's chances at the 2003 general election following

the party's poor commune results?

It is very clear. I don't see a challenge to my party at all. The challenge for

us is to keep the one million voters who supported us and to make sure we reach them

and I don't see them going to these two parties.

I will not waste my time thinking about the renegade parties that have been formed

or any others that claim that they come out of Funcinpec. The experience of 1998

is that there were at least eight renegade parties and they did not get any seats

at all.

So you are not planning on leaving Funcinpec and setting up a Mu Sochua party?

Why should I? I entered Funcinpec when I had all the choices in the world at that

time; I could have even started a woman's party. I chose Funcinpec because it allows

me to have the freedom to speak my mind. When I stand up anywhere I speak out of

conviction and know my party supports me. It is a very liberal party. People look

at it as a weakness of the party, but I see it as a strength. I don't want to be

in a party that checks on every word I say. That would not be democracy.

Was You Hokry's much debated resignation and the controversy surrounding it publicly

damaging for Funcinpec?

No. I think that any party trying to reform goes through internal changes. I don't

call it internal conflicts but internal changes, and to admit that we have to go

through reform is a strength. We must keep the reform agenda as our focus because

the party base has spoken.

Are the influential members of the party content with the current leadership or

do things need to change before the 2003 elections?

Things need to change. We are not challenging the current leadership. We are looking

at a strong campaign package. I totally see Prince Ranariddh as an asset as a leader

and I challenge anyone from our party who claims they can move the party base as

he does. But we need a much stronger campaign strategy.

Finally, does your busy schedule allow much time for other activities?

I have to bring my family into the picture. My husband and I raise our three daughters

in a very open environment. We read the paper and share the news; if it is about

a child being raped, a woman being sold, then that is discussed at the breakfast

table.

My children ask for more of my time and energy but they also know why I am not home

most of the time. That is the situation for a woman as a politician. We are perfectly

happy with three daughters, but they don't wear pink. I don't think I could raise

a son. I don't know how.

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