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Where are the women?

Children participate in a protest yesterday at the National Assembly
Children participate in a protest yesterday at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh, where activists were calling for the release of detained members of their community. Hong Menea

Where are the women?

As Cambodia is experiencing continuous, but at times, uneven economic growth, it is time to ask how to make it more inclusive. A key aspect of this equation will be how to handle the issue of land conflict and how to ensure that women benefit from the growth they contribute to.

While it is often said that economic growth contributes to gender equality, not everyone agrees. Economists Naila Kabeer and Luisa Natali argue that whereas gender equality contributes to economic growth, the reverse is not generally true. Growth either has no impact or, in some cases, has adverse impacts on gender equality.

In Cambodia, women play a key role in economic growth, both through their high levels of economic activity and by providing the workforce for major export industries. But looking at women on the margins raises concerns about those who are left behind. These marginalised women include the inmates at CC2 Women’s Prison. While they are not representative of the general population they do represent a cross-section of Cambodians who have experienced what it means to be left out of the country’s rapid development.

Each of these women has her own story. Eleven of the women are being incarcerated for activities related to land conflicts. Seven of them were arrested on November 10, charged and convicted within 24 hours for obstructing public traffic under Article 78 of the Traffic Law. The women had dragged a bed onto Monivong Boulevard in an attempt to urge Phnom Penh authorities to act on the latest flooding affecting their homes. With Boeung Kak Lake now filled for commercial development, flooding in the area has significantly worsened.

The following day, three women land rights activists protested the arrest of the seven and were themselves arrested and convicted for obstructing officials with aggravating circumstances under Article 504 of the Criminal Code. All 10 have been sentenced to one year in prison and fined 2 million riel ($500). They all appealed against their convictions.

The 11th inmate is a young woman whose family has been fighting eviction for several years and who was arrested last month. Her family’s complaints of harassment and intimidation, the destruction of their property, including the poisoning of their animals, and attempted arson are languishing in court, while the complaints against the family from the company seeking to have them removed are being speedily processed. She was charged and placed in pretrial detention.

Cambodia’s land conflicts are widely reported and these 11 are among other women who are often at the forefront of resisting eviction or seeking redress for what they have lost.

Men and women suffer differently from forced evictions. Given their responsibilities as the primary providers of care for family members, women experience compounded pressures as they lose sources of income and support following an eviction or relocation. As many men depart in search of employment, women are left on their own to provide for their children. Studies have reported cases of anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression among women affected by evictions and relocations.

In October 2013, the government reported to the UN body responsible for monitoring the status of women and progress towards the achievement of women’s human rights. That body, the CEDAW Committee, named after the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, recognised the government’s efforts to improve access to land. The committee also expressed concern that Cambodian women face limited access to land and tenure security, and are subjected to displacement and evictions due to large-scale land concessions and urban development. It further stated that female human rights defenders are often subjected to intimidation and harassment by law enforcement personnel. The committee called for the government to promptly “investigate, and wherever appropriate, prosecute cases of intimidation and harassment by law enforcement personnel against women human rights defenders advocating for land rights”.

If seen in the larger context of Cambodia’s economic growth, the persistence of the 11 women in pursuing their claims can be understood to mean at least two things. Not only have they been left behind by the growth enjoyed by others, but Cambodia’s “Olympian” growth has come in part at a direct cost to these same women. Finally, they do not perceive their constitutionally guaranteed right to access justice to be a reality and have, as a result, taken their plight to the streets.

Cambodia is faced with the question of how to make economic growth good for Cambodian women. Implementing the CEDAW Committee’s recommendations is one concrete step. Enabling Cambodia’s vibrant and autonomous women’s movement, which includes women land rights activists, is another. And finally, allowing peaceful advocacy activities would be a significant step in demonstrating that Cambodia’s democracy has space for all voices, including those of women. For ultimately, the question of Where are the women? is best answered by Cambodian women themselves.

Wenny Kusuma is the country representative of UN Women in Cambodia.

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