Women’s March on Washington in Phnom Penh
On 21 January 2017, my friend Jo Snapp organized the Phnom Penh March of women on Washington in support of our sisters in the US. I made a short video tribute to the ladies, and gents, who showed up on the day, using the music of my all time favourite band Salt n Peppa.
Phnom Penh: One family’s personal tragedy highlights devastating impacts of forced evictions on women
It was an economic survival decision. After losing her home in 2012, Neang Vanne, from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community, left Cambodia in search of a more dignified life for her family. Unfortunately, she never managed to send any money back – the 23-year old woman died this month in a traffic accident while working illegaly in Thailand. She left behind a 2-year old daughter, a 6-year old brother, and two grieving parents.
Borei Keila residents made the headlines in January of last year, when some 300 families were rendered homeless during a violent eviction by land developer Phan Imex, backed by the municipal authorities. Before the incident, the community signed a contract with Phan Imex, agreeing to vacate the land in exchange for apartments for 1,776 families in 10 blocks of flats that the company was to build nearby. Suy Saphan, the owner of the company, backtracked on the deal in 2010 when she said Phan Imex would only be able to finish 8 out of the 10 promised buildings due to bankruptcy.
Refusing to live at distant relocation sites, Vanne’s family stayed on with 117 others and moved into a self-made rickety plywood shelter in the area. Since then, her mother Phan Sopha has regularly participated in peaceful anti-land grabbing protests, mainly led by Borei Keila women who are calling on the authorities and the company to deliver the promised housing. Despite pledges from Phnom Penh’s governor Pa Socheatevong to solve the land dispute, city hall has so far been slow to act.
Before signing a deal with Phan Imex, 44-year old Sopha had her own business at the capital’s Orussey Market, where she sold cakes and earned up to 40,000 riel ($10 US dollars) per day. With her daughter selling coffee, her husband working as a daily labourer, and her son-in-law as a driver, they led a modest but happy life. “We had a small house and we were happy. We had electricity, running water and a bathroom,” Sopha said.
But the loss of the family home soon led to the breakdown of the family unit. Unable to cope with the financial burdens, Neang Vanne’s husband divorced her shortly after the evictions. At the same time Sopha’s husband was diagnosed with cancer, and due to deteriorating health could no longer perform strenuous physical activity.
And so Vanne had to assume the role of primary breadwinner. Like many of her peers, left with very few employment opportunities, she chose to emigrate to Thailand. Once abroad, she joined the swell of undocumented migrants and was quickly locked into unreliable and exploitative employment. “In the beginning, when she called me, she wanted to come back home but didn’t have enough money to do so. She worked at a construction site and was very weak,” Phran Sopha recalled.
Chan Soveth, Deputy Head of Land Rights Unit at local rights group Adhoc, believes Sopha’s tragedy, and the break up of many other Borei Keila families due to economic migration, was brought about by the land grab: “Since the evictions, many of the kids work in factories in or near Phnom Penh; others go to work abroad illegally to help support their parents. What happened to Sopha’s daughter is tragic, but who can be held accountable for that?”
Today Sopha barely manages to make ends meet. She sustains her household with the help of a non-governmental organization and the little income she generates from selling scrap. “I support my community and go to protests all the time. When I don’t protest, I have to look after my sick husband. Because of all that, I lost my spot at the market and now I don’t have enough money to start my business again,” she said.
Cambodian women usually bear the primary responsibility for caring for their loved ones. Therefore, according to a 2010 briefing paper by the human rights watchdog Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, the loss of material resources and livelihood opportunities that accompanies forced evictions increases demands on their time – and consequently also limits their future options. With a long list of chores, and a lack of access to meaningful employment, Sopha is falling further into poverty with every passing day.
Her story is a painful reminder of the complex myriad of impacts forced evictions have on the most vulnerable Cambodians – especially women. Losing their home is usually only the first in a string of many human rights abuses that families suffer. Miloon Kothari, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, asserts women not only lose their homes but also tend to experience “the loss of livelihoods, relationships and support systems, breakdown of kinship ties, physical and psychological trauma and even increased morbidity and mortality.”
Suy Saphan, governor Pa Socheatevong and Long Dimanche, spokesman for Phnom Penh City Hall, could not be reached for comment.