Editor's Note: The past year marked an important turning point for women's rights and feminist movements around the world. In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump's early days into office, women around the world turned to the streets to march for their rights. Later on, the #MeToo movement grabbed the attention of Hollywood and the political world to expose long-buried sexual misconduct and abuse. Silaka Cambodia activist Seng Reasey sat down with VOA Khmer's Aun Chhengpor to discuss what should be on our minds ahead of Women’s Day this week.
VOA: What can you say about the situation of women's rights in Cambodia over the past year?
Reasey: Little changed with the rights issues for Cambodian women in the past year, compared to previous years. We have seen some improvements and some backtracks in certain areas. On the national political aspect, we have noted the decrease of the proportion of women in the National Assembly in the wake of the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party. With regards to violence against women, we also noticed that cases are still common with a new phenomenon, the younger age of perpetrators of the sexual assaults associated with the even younger age of victims and survivors. Despite efforts from the government agencies and relevant NGOs, we still cannot ensure a safe space for women, making them vulnerable to sexual harassment and assaults. On a positive note, we have also noticed that more and more women are engaged in leadership roles in the private sector or are running their own business.
VOA: After the dissolution of the CNRP, 55 politicians were handpicked to assume the opposition slots in parliament --- only two of them are women. Meanwhile, among the 58 Senate seats won by the CPP last month, only 5 of them are women. What is your take on this?
Reasey: This shows that women are always first to feel and experience the impacts of political conflicts. It is a huge setback. So we can say the women are losing legitimate opportunities to engage in meaningful democratic participation. It will be a concern for Cambodia to reach its United Nations promises with the Sustainable Development Goals to accomplish a 50-50 quota between men and women in representation in public office.
VOA: You mentioned the increasing participation of women in the leadership roles when it comes to the private sector. Can you tell me why?
Reasey: I would say that the more exposure to the social media and increasing access to information and education. The surrounding communities are also opening up their minds to provide more space and opportunity for women to learn and to work.
VOA: Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has rallied around the garment workers --- most of whom are female --- with more social protections, including higher wages, on-work insurance, and maternity benefits. What's your take on this?
Reasey: That's a good thing. I would suggest the practice of this social protection scheme to be comprehensive and inclusive. On the other hand, some female workers who are working under short-term contracts find themselves vulnerable to this. Some face dismissal when they demand maternity benefits since they only possess short-term contracts and their employers do not want to offer them financial benefits required by the state.
VOA: The past year also saw the #MeToo campaign open up untold stories about sexual assaults. How do Cambodian activists like you perceive this global campaign?
Reasey: It's an irony that, behind the global economic prosperity accompanied by high-rises and skyscrapers, women are still suffering from the ongoing assaults and exploitation. It's never easy for one to collect their bravery to speak out about those kinds of stories of bad experiences. But #MeToo is a turning point, and we also encourage women here to speak out. This sends a message to would-be perpetrators that we no longer remain silent, and you can no longer cover up your abusive behavior. We will expose it.
VOA: What is your message for this Women's Day?
Reasey: Despite natural and social obstacles designated for them, women can still move on and make great progress to actively participate in all walks of life. Women’s leadership does not have to have them leading 10, 20, or 100 people, but the most important thing is that they can at least obtain the ownership and the leadership of their own life. They have to dream beyond married life. They have to be able to pursue their dreams: education, career, and social life to their best capabilities and wishes.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity