Women Disproportionately Impacted by Pandemic in Cambodia: Rights Groups

A Women’s Day report finds women faced more health, education, and economic challenges in 2020.
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Women Disproportionately Impacted by Pandemic in Cambodia: Rights Groups A peaceful demonstrator is taken away by authorities while protesting in front of the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, Oct. 23, 2020.

Women in Cambodia faced disproportionate rates of health, education, and economic difficulties brought on by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, while enduring numerous restrictions on freedoms of sexual expression and speech, rights groups said Monday in a report marking International Women’s Day.

In a post on Facebook recognizing the 110th International Women’s Day, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that his government has fought “for many years” to promote the rights of women. Announcing this year’s Women’s Day theme as “Women and Development in the Pandemic Context,” he said women have been able to enjoy such freedoms as a result of the country’s “liberation” from the bloody Khmer Rouge regime by a Vietnamese invasion in January 1979.

But while the former Khmer Rouge soldier who switched sides and went on to rule Cambodia for the last 36 years is correct that the lives of women and, arguably all Cambodians, have improved significantly since more than 1.7 million people died from starvation, disease, overwork and executions under the ultra-Maoist regime, rights groups said Monday that a number of challenges remain.

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday, Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) executive director Chak Sopheap said that amid rollbacks on democracy in Cambodia in recent years, basic civil and political rights have been restricted and abused. As the result, she said, the already limited rights of women will continue to suffer in the country.

Chak Sopheap noted that women’s rights could be further curtailed by recently proposed legislation in the name of “public order.”

“These laws were created to promote culture and customs, but they devalue women’s rights and dignity [at the same time],” she said.

And while women in Cambodia are already typically at a disadvantage due to inequities within the country’s legal system a report published Monday by the Cambodian NGO Committee on the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and its member and partner civil society organizations found that the pandemic exacerbated that imbalance last year.

“Women did experience a disproportionate economic impact from COVID-19 because of loss of employment,” the groups said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The report said that Cambodian women suffered high levels of unemployment in 2020, particularly because they often work in the garment, hospitality, entertainment, restaurant, and construction sectors of the country’s economy.

“The reduction in jobs in all of these industries [due to the pandemic] hit women very hard, forcing many from the formal economy into the informal economy and/or into debt,” it said.

“Economic pressures such as this is also a known factor that contributes to gender-based violence (GBV), by causing women to remain in abusive situations for financial reasons or to become vulnerable to exploitation.”

The closure of schools for most of 2020 resulted overwhelmingly in women staying at home and losing work income in order to take on care and education for their children, according to the report.

A screen grab of a video posted to Facebook by the Commissariat of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police on Feb. 19, 2020 shows Thai Srey Neang apologizing for her 'revealing' live feeds. Commissariat of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police's Facebook page

Self-expression under fire

Additionally, the report said, government policies directly attacked women’s self-expression in 2020, including when Hun Sen blamed women’s dress for the number of gender-based violence cases and called for action against women who ran Facebook stores and posted videos of themselves in revealing clothing. Within days of his speech, several online vendors who are women were detained for “education,” some of whom were charged under the anti-trafficking law.

In June 2020, Cambodia’s Ministry of the Interior drafted a new law on public order without consulting organizations working with communities most likely to be affected by the law, including women, despite calls by the CEDAW Committee that it conduct a comprehensive gender analysis for any new legislation. The draft law has prompted public opposition for what is seen as potential violations of the rights of women to freedom of expression and choice of clothing.

The report noted that violence against women, including intimate partner violence, continues to be a serious concern in Cambodia, and that authorities generally use a “reconciliation” method to address the issue, which it said “is undertaken with the express aim of convincing a survivor of intimate partner violence to remain in the relationship with their abuser.”

Monday’s report also cited a lack of comprehensive laws and policies to address the high levels of harassment and other gender-based violence in the workplace, as well as the government’s refusal in 2020 to prosecute some instances of sexual violence committed by authorities.

Additionally, it said, authorities increasingly monitored social media and gatherings in order to prosecute or detain women human rights defenders—particularly those expressing opinions perceived as critical of the government on topics of the environment and politics.

The report noted that numerous women human rights defenders, including the wives and relatives of detained former members of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), were denied the right to peaceably protest the ongoing detention of former party members who spoke out against Hun Sen’s leadership.

The “Friday Wives” held weekly protests demanding their husbands’ release, but their gatherings were broken up by police, who threatened them with arrest and sometimes used force to remove them.

The Committee on CEDAW and its member groups called on Cambodia’s government to discard the draft law on public order, allocate budget to implementing policies on gender equality, and amend and enforce laws aimed at the elimination of violence against women.

They also recommended that the government act to prevent and eliminate all harassment, violence, and discrimination in the workplace, and to train all security personnel on how to interact with women in a non-violent and gender-sensitive manner.

Female inmates and their children await food donations from a local aid agency at Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh, in a file photo. AFP

Women in prison

Also, on Monday, Cambodian rights group LICADHO marked International Women’s Day by publishing a report that called for immediate improvements to the conditions faced by women and girls who are detained in the country’s overcrowded prison system.

“Rights violations behind bars are avoidable, and the government has a responsibility to urgently resolve this crisis by implementing best-practices from both domestic and international laws and regulations,” the group said in a statement accompanying the report.

LICADHO noted that since July 2020, a growing number of women human rights defenders and environmental activists have been jailed as part of a bid by the government to silence their peaceful activism.

“We call on the government to release all prisoners held without a sufficient legal basis, including those arbitrarily detained for peaceful activism or on politically motivated grounds,” the group said.

According to LICADHO, as of late last year, all but one of the 18 prisons the group monitors exceeded 100 percent capacity—overcrowding it said was linked to a government crackdown on drugs that has resulted in unsafe, unsanitary, and inhumane conditions behind bars.

“Women inside must pay for everything, including nutritious food, sufficient clean water, adequate healthcare, electricity, family visits, time outside the cell and space to sleep on cell floors. Those who can’t afford to pay often go without,” the group said.

“Limited access to clean water and soap can have a disproportionate impact on women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating, and period products are not provided by prisons—in direct contravention of the Bangkok Rules,” it added, referring to the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders.

LICADHO said that as of early 2021, almost one-third of women and girls locked in the prisons it monitors were in pre-trial detention, while an additional 41 percent are awaiting a final judgement, with their cases under appeal.

“We call on the government to only use pre-trial detention as a last resort, in accordance with the presumption of innocence and with proper consideration of at-risk populations, such as pregnant women, mothers with young children and child prisoners,” the group said.

LICADHO also urged the government to ensure that every prisoner is asked if they wish to apply for bail, and to prioritize the bail hearings of at-risk populations, including women and child prisoners.

The group said that the mothers, pregnant women and child prisoners who are convicted of misdemeanors should be provided with suspended sentences. It called on the government to publish guidelines on how judicial authorities should handle cases involving these at-risk groups to ensure they are not incarcerated at such high rates in the future.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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