When the Supreme Court hears land-rights activist Yorm Bopha’s final appeal this morning, familiar cries for justice will come from Boeung Kak women on the streets outside.
Much has been written about the housewives of Boeung Kak who have risen up against the government and developers to protest mass land evictions – dissent that has led to beatings and imprisonment.
But much less has been documented about the people they have swapped domestic roles with: their husbands.
“When the community began protesting five years ago, the women understood the context of Cambodia,” Housing Rights Task Force secretariat director Sia Phearum said yesterday. “People at that time were traumatised and too scared to protest, because people who did were often killed or arrested.”
The Boeung Kak community believed putting women on the front line at protests was a way to reduce such violence while still getting their message across, Phearum said. Such a move, they thought, would also allow men to keep working to pay the bills.
As activism has become an almost full-time job for some of the women in the years since, a culture shift has occurred in these households, Phearum added.
“The men have become house husbands.”
The streets of Boeung Kak’s Village 22 were almost bereft of women on Wednesday afternoon. Tep Vanny, the community’s most prominent activist, was in a meeting in the city.
“Our lives have become stressful,” said Ou Kongchea, Vanny’s husband, who was working at home. “These protests have had a huge effect on my life.”
Like other husbands in Boeung Kak, Kongchea has stood in the shadows, lending support as his wife has rapidly become a public figure.
“When my wife joins the protests, I need to do everything in the home,” he said. “I take care of our two children and go to the market to buy vegetables to cook.”
Being the husband of a well-known dissident also has its professional challenges.
“First, my [boss] began pressuring me,” the former military employee said. “Then local authorities from the Daun Penh district filed a complaint to my commander accusing me of using an illegal gun. If that were a real complaint, I would have been arrested.”
After taking unpaid leave from his position, Kongchea now works from home making picture frames.
“I’ve got less money than before and things are much harder,” he said.
Vanny is known for getting in the faces of police and security guards. She has been beaten, and spent more than a month in Prey Sar prison last year.
Kongchea said the thought of his wife protesting still makes him stressed. But he sees the importance of it.
“Most Cambodians think women should stay at home to cook the food, support the family and look after the children, not go outside to demonstrate,” he said. “But if a man protests, the authorities will use deadly violence. They shoot.”
Yorm Bopha’s husband, Lous Sakhorn, 57, has spent more than a year raising his nine-year-old son alone.
“When my wife was arrested and imprisoned, my family faced a food shortage,” he said. “I was busy looking after my son, doing the housework and visiting my wife in prison – I didn’t have enough time to earn money.
“At my age, it’s difficult raising a child by myself … but I will keep protesting until my wife is freed.”
Bopha, 30, was arrested in September last year and sentenced in December to three years in prison – later reduced to two years on appeal – after she was convicted of ordering an assault on two motodops. Rights groups say the charges are baseless.
Fellow Boeung Kak villager Ly Heap, 40, also saw his wife, Bov Sophea, imprisoned last year. After a three-hour trial, Sophea was one of 13 women, including Vanny, locked in Prey Sar.
The challenge of managing a household in the face of evictions, imprisonment and job loss – Heap worked at the now-bankrupt telephone company Mfone – has taken its toll.
“When I was working at Mfone and my wife protested, I had no time to look after my children,” he said. “Sometimes no one would be at home, so they would follow their mother to the protest.”
When times are tough at Boeung Kak, though, the men look out for each other, Kongchea said.
“We’re good friends, but we haven’t formed a network,” he said. “We understand each other, but we’re not active like the women are.”
But they are just as tired.
The release of Bopha, Kongchea said, and the issuing of land titles to dozens of remaining families, would be key steps towards things calming down.
“If this goes on, I think our living conditions will get worse,” he said. “We need to stop protests when the case of Yorm Bopha is completely resolved.”
But the women, who have branched out to support other human-rights causes in recent years, may have other ideas.
In any case, role reversals are not a bad thing, HRTF’s Phearum said.
“If I cook, I might be accused of not being a real man or something … but I think with globalisation and economic development, these things have to change,” he said.