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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Mu Sochua: the long fight for women's rights

Mu Sochua: the long fight for women's rights

M u Sochua, the Funcinpec nominee to be Minister of Women's Affairs, spoke to the

Post about her history and philosophy. She declined to speak about the apparent campaign

against her. The following are excerpts:

I want to first reflect on what women have done since the elections, through the

promulgation of the constitution, then up to the Beijing conference and now preparing

for the new Ministry of Women's Affairs - the first time such a ministry has existed

in Cambodia's history.

Initially, we were not aware of gender issues until UNIFEM came into Cambodia in

1992. After discussions with them it dawned on us that we were going to miss the

boat. It was also through the efforts of UNTAC Information and their gender-related

news that we became more aware of the importance of women.

I asked Dennis McNamara (head of UNTAC's Human Rights office) for a grant to do the

peace walk, to get women to call for non-violence and to get women to arrange for

educational seminars. We were able to put out a newsletter, the Khmer-language Women's

Voice. That was my first step into the world of politics.

After that things really got going. I was involved in Ponleu Khmer as one of the

founders. It was involved in monitoring the drafting of the constitution and working

with the Peace Walk. The women, the monks and the NGOs were going to bless the National

Assembly and we were overjoyed by this new rebirth of our society, our civil society.

So that was really the beginning of the women's movement, the awareness of women

in politics. And then that calmed down a little bit. But we hung together trying

to get more and more involved in the NGO movement. So more and more local NGOs and

associations, development associations in all sectors mushroomed in Cambodia. So

I was really involved in the development of these NGOs.

My vision in the movement of NGOs is very clear. Its that the reconstruction of Cambodia

has to include the participation of the people. Its clear and its simple.

Its not a new concept. Its re-establishing community spirit which existed in the

old society. Like every project in each village was initiated by the monks, by the

villagers. We lost these traditions during the past twenty-three years and now we

see a chance for the civil society, for village people, for community people to get

back in touch by contributing to the reconstruction, the development of the community,

and in this sense to the reconstruction of the whole of Cambodia.

And that's when we as women became more and more pulled into this role...our role,

our responsibilities in national reconstruction. And, as you know I am very outspoken

and I stand firm on the role of NGOs, the role of the civil society and the roles

of women in national reconstruction.

It was a really thrilling time starting together from the base, at the bottom of

the line. There were difficult times of course because so many NGOs came out within

the past two years. Many of the NGOs wanted financial assistance. And I was very

firm with my NGO friends not to sell their names, not to just look for financial

assistance. My word to my NGO friends is always "You don't need the money, you

don't lack the money. The money is there, its always there."

But what we need to do is show to the donors our vision. And to some NGOs who did

not have a vision, some NGOs who only look like they were looking for a job without

having any clear idea of how they are going to contribute to national reconstruction,

I was pretty harsh on them. And even today I will be very harsh.

I also stood very firm and still stand very firm on the role of expatriates in the

reconstruction of Cambodia, the role of international organizations and the role

of the donors in the reconstruction of Cambodia. And I spoke many times at different

functions, different seminars...its even recorded.

Now then it came to the preparations for Beijing...it took us 18 months. So it was

around 1993, when UNIFEM and UNDP came to the women's groups and said "Are you

aware of the Fourth World Conference on Women?" Again we were not aware at that

time. Cambodia is always the last part of the world to know these things.

But once we became aware, once again we saw an opportunity. And from the very, very

beginning I saw that we Cambodian women must go to Beijing as a country and not as

divided Cambodian local NGOs. And I maintained that stand very strongly: "We

go together as a nation." It doesn't matter how many women from Cambodia went,

but we must go as a nation. Speak out the issues of Cambodian women as a voice.

So for 18 months we worked very hard, we went through difficult times. We went through

many confrontations because some NGOs wanted to go alone to represent their, NGOs,

their associations. And I didn't think it was right. And many people shared my view,

so there were some conflicts there and knowing the way I speak and the way I stand

for issues, I probably created some unhappiness for some people.

The speech delivered by Princess Marie in Beijing was drafted by Chantou Boua, the

first draft. The final draft, I worked on and it was accepted by the Council of Ministers.

It was clear to me that Cambodia should not go to Beijing as a poor country. Cambodian

women can not be portrayed in Beijing as victims, as disadvantaged. We should go

to Beijing with the reality, but standing firm on our commitments and our goals in

national reconstruction. My recommendation to the Prince was that the secretariat

for Women's Affairs be upgraded to a ministry lead by a woman. The government had

to make a commitment in Beijing.

When we came back from Beijing I was unhappy that the Secretariat for Women's Affairs

didn't take on the move to implement the Cambodia platform for women. In January

I was called by the CDC on the position of the Women's Ministry for the Consultative

Meeting in Tokyo. Again I took the lead and with assistance from UNICEF, I helped

put the position paper together.

The vision in the paper is that Cambodian women are social and economic capital of

the country. Secondly, Cambodia will become a member of ASEAN. We have to invest

in our human capital, in our men and our women. The vision is that Cambodian women

have and will play a very key position in the reconstruction of the society: raising

the children, taking care of the income of the family, contributing to the economy

of the family and the nation.

So the priorities are: universal education; health care, looking specifically at

safe motherhood, which includes access to family planning, which includes access

to primary health care, which includes the prevention of HIV/AIDS and STDs; economic

development and others. And lastly, we must look at access to legal services. Legal

protection will give women their guarantee to be a part of this society and be the

value of this society.

That's the framework when we talk about women in development in Cambodia. I am very

clear about the fact that the women's ministry should not be seen as the only ministry

to defend women. Because there is no way the Women's Ministry can do this job alone.

Its all the ministries included in social development that should have clear policies

for gender development.

I also want to add that my involvement in all this was not just after I returned

to the country in 1989. My involvement with women goes back to my time as a student

in the states when I was a refugee struggling to put myself through school via welfare.

I put myself through the School of Social Welfare because I wanted to do family counseling.

And I got my Masters Degree and went to work in the refugee camps for almost six

years as coordinator for social services and education for UNBRO.

In the camps you see the suffering of the people. And specifically because I am a

woman, I saw the struggle, but at the same time I saw the strengths of the women

refugees. And they were not just refugees, they were my sisters. We went through

the evacuation sites together, land mines together. we went through tragedies together

but what really kept me going as a young woman was always the strengths that I saw,

the hunger for education, the hunger for knowledge through the eyes of our children,

the eyes of our women who struggled to raise their children, to carry their children

through the crossfire, through tank ditches, through shelling.

And then I came back to establish the first Cambodian NGO, even before the elections;

an NGO that believed it could take the lead in the reconstruction of Cambodia.

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