Rights groups criticized the Stung Treng police department’s decision this week to chastise a local police officer for breastfeeding her child while on the job.
Sithong Sokha, a deputy police chief in Stung Treng’s Siem Pang district, posted a photo of herself breastfeeding her child on March 2, with a caption talking about how a mother’s love for their child is unaffected by shyness. However, a week later, Stung Treng police officials reprimanded her on March 9 for posting the photo while on the job and made her sign a contract to not do any such activities again.
Thirty-nine rights groups said the police’s actions came 24 hours after International Women’s Day, and highlight the steep challenges faced by women at the workplace.
“Women should not be forced to choose between doing their job and providing vital care for their children,” the statement reads. “That a working mother would be scolded for attempting to do both – as is the case here – illustrates that the government has failed to protect women’s rights at work.”
After social media uproar at the admonishment, senior police staff attempted to fix the situation by saying Sithong Sokha was reprimanded for not getting “permission” before posting the breastfeeding photo, which was again criticized by the rights groups for impinging on her right to free expression.
“We call for the police officer’s supervisors to issue a public apology for their disappointing handling of the case and for the harm it may have caused their subordinate and other women across the country,” the statement reads.
Sithong Sokha said she did not want to speak about the case and wanted the issue to end.
“For my post, let me make it clear. I didn’t mean for the post to harm my workplace and that the post is a post to express a mother’s feelings, to reflect a mother’s feeling for their children,” she said.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs released a statement on March 10 commending the police officer for breastfeeding her child, but, at the same time, also said that women should carry something to cover themselves while breastfeeding.
“In case the institution does not have a suitable place, women should have equipment such as scarves or towels to allow breastfeeding to be carried out appropriately and smoothly, avoiding criticism from some people who said the image is an inappropriate image that affects the values and dignity of Cambodian women,” the Women’s Affairs statement reads.
Chak Sopheap, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said breastfeeding, in public or private, was in no way damaging to a woman’s dignity nor does it affect the dignity of the workplace.
“For the fact that we all put the burden [on her], criticizing; for example, her superiors called her to give apologies and sign the agreement; it means her superiors are the ones who should offer apologies to her, and introduce a specific measure for gender equality and make the environment comfortable for their institutions providing support to women who are all mothers and on duties,” Sopheap said.
Marn Chenda, secretary of state at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, declined to comment on Thursday. Stung Treng police chief Out Sivutha could not be reached for comment on Thursday
Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and the permanent vice-chair of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking, sent a letter to the Stung Treng governor expressing her disappointment over the handling of the Sithong Sokha case.
“Having read this article, I am very sorry that the police used such behavior and did not clearly distinguish between what is right and wrong,” she wrote in the letter.