Women are increasingly bearing the brunt of forced evictions in Cambodia where they face beatings, imprisonment and the loss of their homes, according to an international rights group.
The London-based Amnesty International said in a report released Thursday that the government must end the practice of forced evictions for commercial and other development and instead listen to the plight of women who face grave dangers in protecting their homes.
“In Cambodia, women are at the forefront of the fight against forced evictions. Many have taken the lead in their communities’ struggle for justice, putting themselves at risk to defend their communities,” said Donna Guest, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director.
“The Cambodian authorities must bring about an end to the practice of forced evictions, which contravene international human rights treaties and tear families apart.”
“They must ensure that genuine consultations are held with the people affected, and that residents receive sufficient notice and compensation or adequate housing where there is no alternative to eviction,” she said.
Tens of thousands of people have been forcibly evicted across Cambodia, in both rural and urban areas while indigenous people face expulsion from their traditional land, according to Amnesty International.
“Women not only face impoverishment from forced eviction but threats and imprisonment when they try to resist, with no protection from the law,” Guest said.
In the Boeung Kak Lake area of central Phnom Penh, nearly 20,000 people have either been evicted from their homes or are at risk of losing them since a commercial development company was granted a 99-year lease in the area in 2007.
Despite assurances that Prime Minister Hun Sen had granted a portion of the land to the remaining 800 families with legal titles of ownership, they are having sleepless nights.
Tep Vanny, a 31-year-old Boeung Kak resident who helps lead community resistance to the eviction, said she feels insecure about the possibility of being kicked off of her land.
“When I leave my house, I don't know whether I can expect to come home or not,” she told Amnesty International.
Vanny was recently charged with defamation by the Municipality of Phnom Penh, which she says was a result of the work she has done to protect the community.
And despite her activism, eight more homes on the edge of Boeung Kak Lake were destroyed by bulldozers on Sept. 16, leaving the families homeless.
Evicted and jailed
Hoy Mai, 48, an indigenous mother from northwestern Oddar Meanchey province, was five months pregnant in 2009 when her home was set aflame as part of a forced eviction.
“My house, possessions, clothes, all went up in smoke. Nothing was left.”
Her home and 118 others in Bos village were bulldozed and burned to the ground by 150 police, military, and others believed to be workers employed by a company that was granted a concession over a large swath of land for a sugar plantation, the report said.
Days later, Mai was imprisoned for eight months for violating forestry clearing laws when she traveled to the capital Phnom Penh to complain to Prime Minister Hun Sen about the eviction.
She gave birth after three days of labor in prison and for two months nursed her son in a prison cell that she shared with seven other women. Rice rations were spoiled and barely edible, leaving Mai and her son in poor health.
She was released in June 2010, but only after signing an agreement to relinquish the rights to her land and accepting a resettlement plot.
But Mai told Amnesty International that she has still not received the replacement property and now has little to provide for herself and her eight children.
Cambodia’s land issue dates from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country.
This was followed by mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
An estimated 30,000 people a year in Cambodia are driven from farmland or urban areas to make way for real estate developments or mining and agricultural projects.
“Tens of thousands of people across Cambodia are unlawfully losing their homes because of the demands of big business,” according to Amnesty’s Guest.
“The Cambodian government must not sacrifice human rights in the name of economic development.”
Forced eviction often leads to loss of possessions and livelihood, the breakup of communities, and the deterioration of a family’s mental and physical well being, Amnesty said.
The rights group said that victims of forced eviction are likely to lose access to education and health services, receive inadequate compensation and are resettled in remote areas.
Husbands are often made to spend long periods of time away from home seeking work, leaving their wives to cope alone.
“The loss of one’s home and community is a traumatic experience for anyone, but women in their role as primary caregivers for their family face a particular burden,” Guest said.
“Forced evictions also threaten the gains made in reducing poverty in Cambodia over the last 20 years.”
Reported by Joshua Lipes.