NGOs Demand Cambodia Scrap Draft Law Citing Potential Abuse of Women’s Rights

Facebook user Thai Srey Neang is shown under police guard outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court following her arrest for posting 'revealing' images online, Feb. 20, 2020.
Police Photo

Three dozen organizations working to promote gender equality in Cambodia have called on the country’s government to scrap its Draft Law on Public Order (DLPO), expressing concern that dress codes for females and other provisions within the bill violate women’s human rights.

In a joint statement issued on Thursday, the 36 national and international groups said they are “disturbed” by the DLPO’s potential to subject women to criminal sanctions for dress and behavior that allegedly violate “arbitrary and discriminatory social norms related to women’s dress and conduct.”

The bill, which will take effect next year if approved by several government ministries and the National Assembly, would ban men from going out shirtless and stop women from wearing anything “too short” or “too see-through.”

“We wish to emphasize that the government cannot uphold its commitment to achieving gender equality on one hand, while demonizing and criminalizing women who they deem to be harming society by not conforming to arbitrary, conservative standards of dress and morality,” the groups said in Thursday’s statement.

“Similarly, the RGC (Royal Government of Cambodia) cannot tackle high rates of sexual violence and harassment without promoting women as being in control of their bodies and entitled to their own sexual autonomy, and without condemning and prosecuting perpetrators of all forms of sexual violence.”

According to the groups, the DLPO restricts women’s right to freedom of expression and reinforces harmful gender stereotypes. They said it denies women the right to choose their own attire, claiming that “revealing” clothing has an “adverse effect” on “national tradition and dignity.”

While men’s clothing choices are also restricted, the groups said that given Cambodia’s socio-legal context, and in light of recent threats against and arrests of Cambodian women while selling products online, the law is more likely to be applied against women.

During a speech to the Cambodian National Council for Women in February, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered authorities to take immediate action against women who wear “revealing” clothing while selling products on Facebook, saying their actions were lowering Cambodian cultural values and causing sexual violence.

Shortly afterwards, Cambodian police arrested a female Facebook user named Thai Srey Neang who had been previously cautioned for posting “revealing” images online, saying she had breached an earlier agreement in which she apologized for her behavior and promised to stop.

Thai Srey Neang was convicted of “producing pornography” in April and handed a six-month suspended sentence, which was reduced to two months and 15 days.

‘Discard the DLPO’

On Thursday, the 36 groups said the DPLO “would entrench in law sexist attitudes about women’s dress and conduct and give legal authority to abusive social policing of women’s bodies and choices and a broader culture of discriminatory gender norms,” while also warning that the draft law would likely be disproportionately applied against members of the LGTBQ community.

Additionally, the groups said, the DLPO discriminates against at-risk groups in society, particularly through disproportionately criminalizing domestic, social, and economic activities that are mostly conducted by Cambodian women.

They noted that the workforce in the informal sector is largely made up of women, including sex workers and street vendors—professions they said will be subjected to prohibitions and penalties.

“While the DLPO does not single out women and girls in this regard, the DLPO will de facto have more adverse and disproportionate impacts on women than men as well as their ability to enjoy a wide range of human rights as set out in international human rights law,” they said.

The groups welcomed an Aug. 13 joint statement from 79 civil society organizations calling on the government to abandon the DPLO due to “an extensive array of provisions that effectively criminalize the legitimate everyday activities” of Cambodians, but said they felt the need to highlight gender-specific concerns with the proposed legislation.

“We therefore call on the Cambodian government to immediately discard the DLPO,” Thursday’s joint statement said.

“The government should instead make it an urgent priority to address the forms of gender discrimination it has identified—including gender-based violence and discrimination in education, economic, social and political participation—through legislative reforms and policy change.”

Draft law ‘cannot be fixed’

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch—which was among the groups that had signed on to Thursday’s statement—called the DLPO “an appalling violation of women’s rights in Cambodia” and questioned the mindset of the officials at the Ministry of Interior who drafted it.

“In some ways, it appears that one hand of the Cambodian government doesn’t know what the other hand is doing because the draft law, as currently written, blatantly violates the Cambodian government's own policies and strategic plans on the promotion of gender equality in Cambodia,” he said in a note supplementing the statement.

“This draft Public Order Law reveals a dark government vision of rigid, rights abusing social controls against the Cambodian people. While the draft claims to recognize women as the backbone of Cambodian society, the draft law seeks to strip women of their liberties and further entrench Cambodia's widespread gender-based violence and discrimination against women in socio-economic and political aspects of life.”

Robertson said the DPLO is “so bad that it really cannot be fixed” and urged the government to dump it.

“Instead of adopting further repressive laws, the government [should] make good on its pledges to protect women's rights, which include protecting everything from a woman's right to free speech to what she decides to wear,” he said.

Government response

Ministry of Women Affairs spokesman Sar Sineth refused to comment on Thursday’s statement, instead asking RFA to submit written questions to the ministry for answers.

However, deputy head of the Ministry of Interior’s legal team Mony Virak told RFA on Friday that the DPLO had been drafted “to maintain social order and protect the people’s dignity.”

He noted that the draft law is at “a very early stage,” adding that the ministry had yet to consult with other stakeholders about its contents.

Ouk Kimlekh, an interior ministry secretary of state who is leading the drafting process, has said the law is needed to preserve traditional culture.

Blaming outfits

Mu Sochua, the deputy president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and Cambodia’s former Minister of Women Affairs, told RFA Thursday that the draft law will directly impact the rights of women guaranteed in the country’s constitution.

She said that if the law is adopted, women can be punished solely because of their clothing preferences.

“Can’t a human decide which clothes they should wear?” she asked.

“Allowing this kind of law to condemn women who are wearing short skirts will encourage men to abuse women.”

In an op-ed in the Washington Post last week, Menghun Kaing, an Obama Scholar and a recent master’s graduate of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and Sievlan Len, a Knight-Hennessy Scholar at Stanford University, warned that illegalizing women’s clothing choices legitimizes blaming victims of sexual violence for their outfits, rather than punishing perpetrators.

“In the era of the #MeToo movement, when women around the world are speaking up against injustice, Cambodia is about to further oppress its women by taking away their fundamental right to choose what they wear,” the two Cambodian women wrote.

“We join the thousands of Cambodian women to urge the legislature to kill the bill. Let’s begin a new tradition, in which the dignity of our nation is based on the equality of our women and men.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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