The women of Boeung Kak community are prominent public figures. Emily Wight and Vandy Muong found out what their activism means for traditional gender roles.
Yorm Bopha, 32
“Before, I was a housewife, like many women in Cambodia. But I looked up to examples of women leaders – female politicians in countries like the USA and Australia and female NGO workers here, even Mu Sochua. These women inspired me.
When I told my husband I wanted to start protesting, he didn’t want me to go because he thought it would be dangerous and I might die. But I told him I wasn’t afraid of being put in prison or dying, because if I didn’t do this now, what about the next generation who will suffer? It’s an unjust situation, and I have to stand up for the people of my community.
After I came out of prison last year, my husband and I separated. He was gambling and drinking and he gambled away a lot of our property from the house. He was also violent towards me, so I couldn’t stay with him. Domestic violence is a huge problem in Cambodia, and I felt like I had to set an example. But my husband took our son with him, and I only see him once a week, which is really hard. I feel like it’s all been so unfair – I spent one year in prison, and then my family fell apart. But women will always face obstacles in life, no matter how big or small, and we have to be strong. All these obstacles will only make me stronger.
I definitely think the Boeung Kak activists have more attention from people because we’re women. People are beginning to realise that Cambodian women can be strong, we can protest. If women see us when they read the newspaper, they might feel inspired to get involved in political issues, whereas before they might have just wanted to stay at home and be housewives.
One day, I would love to see a female prime minister in Cambodia.”
When contacted, Yorm Bopha’s husband Lous Sakhorn denied being physically violent towards her.
Bo Chhorvy, 40
“I started protesting because I wanted to help my community. My husband hated it: because our family is poor, he wanted me to be earning money instead of going to protest. He is a police officer for the government, and we divorced two years ago because of conflicting interests. He couldn’t handle my activism, and in the end he chose his work over his wife.
My mother lives with me and takes care of my child and my nephews and nieces. She cooks and takes care of the home, because I focus most of my time on activism. But she’s getting old and sick now, and I’m worried she won’t be able to do this much longer. I rent two rooms in my house, so I can get a small amount of money for my family to get by.
Becoming an activist has given me so much confidence. I have always lived in a poor family, and had many problems. But now I know how to communicate with people, and how to protest. I have a purpose in life and I feel that I can die for a good cause. It’s really important that I’m doing this myself - that I’m not depending on a man. I’m really proud that I can help my community in this way.
I’m happy to be a role model for other girls in the Boeung Kak community. We’re not just protesting for our land, we’re protesting for everyone’s land. This company says they’re a development company, but instead of developing the community, they’ve made people poorer, because they’re destroying our homes. In Cambodia, rich people don’t care about poor people.
The authorities are often violent towards us, but I’m happy to protest anyway. When I go to demonstrate, I never expect to come home - I expect to end up in prison, or dead. But I’m showing women that we can be strong.”
Tep Vanny, 33
“When I joined the Boeung Kak activists in 2010, my husband allowed me, because he thought I was strong and he could see that I cared about other people. But he did warn me that I might be arrested, or even killed. I’ve been arrested seven times, one time spending more than one month in prison.
My husband used to be a soldier, but when I was in prison in 2012, the government fired him because of my activism, so now he makes picture frames which he sells behind the National Museum. He continues to support me, but he is worried about my safety. My family used to be happy, but now I get worn down because of the land rights abuses at Boeung Kak, and my husband gets upset that the authorities treat me badly.
My husband has become the housewife of the family! He can’t cook, but he takes the children to school, and cleans. If I have time, I’ll cook, but if not I’ll buy already made food. I met a woman in prison who cooks for the Boeung Kak community at our community centre.
Activism has definitely changed traditional gender roles. At first it was really difficult – before, I was just a housewife. Now we have to be strong, we have to meet new people and get our voices heard. I’m not afraid any more. This makes a good story, that’s why newspapers and news agencies give attention to the situation. Before, nobody saw women stand up and protest, so it’s a change in society.
Activism has given me a reason to live. We have always been so poor, and I always used to think that because I didn’t have much education I couldn’t do anything. I was too shy to talk to people. I just lived for the sake of living – I never for one minute thought I could do what I’m doing now. But when I joined the Boeung Kak activists, I saw people suffering and I realised we had to discuss strategy to get justice for the people. When we started working together, we became strong, and now I am committed and feel I have a purpose.”
Nget Khun, 74
“I have seven children and 13 grandchildren. Three of my children live with me and my husband, who is 80 years old. At first my husband asked me to stop protesting, because he was worried about safety, but gradually he realised that I had to, for the sake of our land and our community. He was very surprised to see that the core group of activists are women. But he was also touched by the attention that gave us from NGOs and people all over the world, and that persuaded him to support us. He still worries, though, because I’m old and vulnerable.
My children work to look after my husband and me, but if they have free time then they do household chores. My husband is too old. If they don’t have time, that’s left to me, but it’s difficult to have the time. When I was a housewife, after cooking and cleaning I’d have time to sleep, to talk with my children and my husband. But now I’m always out protesting, and sometimes I don’t have time even to eat. It’s difficult, but I’m willing to make sacrifices to improve the rights of the next generation.
Cambodian people respect and appreciate me because I’m an elderly woman taking care of my community. If we didn’t protest, NGOs might not realise how bad the situation is. We can be role models for the next generation - before, women didn’t know how to protest, but we’re setting an example. I’m a good role model for my daughter, who used to be weak, but now she’s strong and she knows her rights. She has become a Boeung Kak activist too.”