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Women in the headlines: Cambodia's year in review

A woman at a memorial service in March 2017 holds flowers and a photo of Pen Kunthea, a Phnom Penh sex worker who drowned while attempting to flee from district security guards.
A woman at a memorial service in March 2017 holds flowers and a photo of Pen Kunthea, a Phnom Penh sex worker who drowned while attempting to flee from district security guards. Martin de Bourmont

Women in the headlines: Cambodia's year in review

This International Women’s Day, the Post looks back over some of our reporting on issues affecting women in the Kingdom – and some of the Cambodians upending expectations placed on their gender.

The under-representation of women remains an issue in many fields. While the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party made significant gains in commune elections held in June last year, female candidates from both major parties reported being deliberately pushed down ballot lists to make space for male candidates. The CNRP’s demise in November saw almost all of its 5,007 elected commune council seats taken by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. The move, widely criticised on political grounds, saw female representation rise by almost 20 percent, from 1,940 female commune chiefs and councillors to 2,323 - yet the overall share of elected commune officials remains at just 20 percent.

Recently-released statistics compiled by the Cambodian National Council for Women show that the number of women in the Cambodian judicial system remains stubbornly low. Just 14 percent of judges in the country are women, a number that has barely shifted in the past five years. Two out of 29 Appeal Court judges and three out of 22 in the Supreme Court are women, according to the Cambodian Bar Association. Overall female representation among prosecutors is even lower, with just 23 in the country, making up 12 percent of the total – a 2 percent increase since 2013.

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Uncertainty around the Kingdom’s laws on commercial surrogacy has impacted often-vulnerable women in recent years. The “rent-a-womb” practice was outlawed in a snap edict in October 2016. But the shift saw many expecting mothers left in limbo, at risk of prosecution, and some abandoned by agencies and cut off from support.

Klien Savoeun, at seven months pregnant, reads over her one-month contract while her young son looks on in Kandal’s Sa’ang district.
Klien Savoeun, at seven months pregnant, reads over her one-month contract while her young son looks on in Kandal’s Sa’ang district. Heng Chivoan

Last month the Post reported on how short-term contracts, common in many of the country’s garment factories, are putting pregnant factory workers in a precarious position, at risk of losing their jobs at a crucial time.

Despite being illegal, the practice of taking multiple wives is common but seldom discussed in Cambodia. While often powerless themselves to get out of relationships, women sometimes must share their husbands – a situation fraught with social stigma. Our reporters looked at how women cope with the shared arrangement.

Stories about violence against women highlighted many of the failings in institutions meant to protect them. Last year saw the death of Cambodian singer San Sreylai in a murder-suicide carried out by her estranged husband, after which a set of photos was shared among police officers and posted to social media of Sreylai’s body lying in a pool of blood, with her sports bra pulled up to her neck. An investigation into the photographs never materialised.

Long Chanthy, mother of San Sreylai, poses with a picture of her daughter at her 100-day funeral ceremony. Sreylai’s death prompted women’s rights activists to speak out about the need to enforce laws on domestic violence.
Long Chanthy, mother of San Sreylai, poses with a picture of her daughter at her 100-day funeral ceremony. Sreylai’s death prompted women’s rights activists to speak out about the need to enforce laws on domestic violence. Daphne Chen

The spousal murder of 23-year-old Chan Sreykuoch called the responsibility of commune officials’ adhoc role as marital mediators into question. Meanwhile the death of Pen Kunthea, a sex worker who drowned while fleeing Daun Penh district security guards, took on symbolic status among Phnom Penh sex workers struggling to assert their rights, even as her death deeply rattled the community.

The above makes grim reading. But there were also many stories of women making strides in their fields and often challenging cultural stigmas and stereotypes.

Grandmother Lang sits outside the Kampong Cham cave where she mediated for four years.
Grandmother Lang sits outside the Battambang cave where she meditated for four years. Eliah Lillis

The Post travelled to Battambang to meet ‘Grandmother’ Lang, an enigmatic nun who lives in the mountains and has attracted hundreds of devoted followers over the decades. Reporters spoke to popular band Vartey Ganiva, which sees a songwriting duo of two sisters writing songs promoting the strength of women and criticising patriarchal traditions. Exhibitions such as Neak Sophal’s Flower have proven quietly subversive, challenging traditional notions of female beauty. And we spoke to pioneers like makeup artist Apple Love, who has pushed against the doubts of her family and friends to pursue her dream career.

“Women [in Cambodia] don’t [feel like they] have many options or choices. They don’t realise how big and how far they can go. I want to share my personal life . . . to make them feel more comfortable in their own skin and be proud of their gender and themselves,” Apple told us in July.

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