Cambodia, Laos declare Women’s Day a holiday, but host of inequalities remain

Cambodia and Laos declared Wednesday’s International Women’s Day a holiday as leaders sought to highlight improvements in the status of women, but activists across Southeast Asia said much progress was still needed in protecting women, who regularly face discrimination and threats of violence.

Although the Ministry of Women’s Affairs encourages female victims to seek help from local authorities, “those requests are often ignored,” said Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

She raised examples of women activists who have faced violence from security personnel while fighting to uphold their rights, including workers striking to demand better wages and working conditions at the NagaWorld Resort and Casino in the capital. Authorities have violently clashed with the mostly female workers on multiple occasions, leaving several injured.

The government must free women it has detained for promoting their rights, including Cambodian-American lawyer Theary Seng, Nagaworld union leader Chhim Sithar and CNRP activists York Neang, Lanh Thavry, Mom Sambo, Kim Tola and Pen Mom, said Mu Sochua, a deputy vice president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party.

More female journalists in prison

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders issued a statement Wednesday calling for the immediate and unconditional release of imprisoned women journalists throughout the world, singling out two reporters from Vietnam and Myanmar.

The group highlighted the case of Pham Doan Trang, who it awarded its Press Freedom Prize for Impact in 2019, noting that the activist and journalist had been moved to a prison 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) south of Hanoi “in an attempt to suppress any reporting about her state of health, which is critical.”

Trang was arrested on the charge of "propagandizing against the State" in October 2020 and sentenced to nine years in prison in December 2021. She had been accused of speaking with foreign media, including Radio Free Asia and the BBC, allegedly to defame the government with “fake news.”

Reporters Without Borders also highlighted the case of Myanmar freelancer Htet Htet Khine, who has been held in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison since August 2021.

She was sentenced twice to three years of imprisonment with hard labor on charges of “inciting hatred and violence against the armed forces” for reporting the violence they used after taking power in a February 2021 coup.

Vietnam ranked 174th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index and is the world’s fourth largest prison for journalists after China, Iran and Belarus.

According to the group, of the 550 journalists and media workers who are currently imprisoned worldwide, 73 – more than 13% – are women, a proportion that has doubled in the past five years.

‘Human trafficking must stop’

In Laos, an official who works on women’s issues told RFA that women’s rights are “a priority” for the government.

“Human trafficking and violence against women must stop, and those who commit these acts must go to jail,” the official said, asking not to be named. “The laws that protect women should be strongly enforced.”

But while the roles and rights of women in Laos have become better respected and protected in recent years, many Lao women – especially those in the country’s remote areas – are poor, uneducated, and easily victimized by human traffickers for the sex trade and forced labor in countries like Thailand and China.

And while the United Nations Development Program has commended Laos for having one of the world’s highest proportions of women in parliament, it noted that very few women hold power in other government institutions.

The UNDP also notes “large inequalities in some regions, with women systematically denied the same work rights as men.”

It cited sexual violence and exploitation, unequal division of unpaid care and domestic work, and discrimination in public office as huge barriers.

Red paint

Also on Wednesday, about 20 youth activists gathered in front of the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh calling on the Thai government to drop charges against Thai Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon, Orawan “Bam” Phupong, and other Cambodian women rights defenders.

The activists held a mediation session and doused their bodies with red paint to draw attention to their cause.

“To honor women's day, the government needs to encourage the women who are environmental activists, politicians or union leaders,” said Kim Chhilinshe. “They are being detained for crimes that they didn't commit.”

Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government marked International Women’s Day with a bleak statistic: It said 483 women across the country have been killed by the junta in the 25 months since the military seized power from the democratically elected government.

The joint statement by the National Unity Government’s Ministry of Women, Youth and Children’s Affairs and the National Unity Consultative Council’s Coordinating Committee on Gender Policy said the junta had also detained 3,125 women, 11 of whom received the death sentence and 15 life imprisonment.

Helping, not hurting

In Cambodia, a number of women activists and politicians have been arrested due to their activism, said Am Sam Ath of rights group Licadho. He said they should have been encouraged to work to promote human rights and serve society instead of being arrested.

"I want to see women [activists and politicians] who are being detained get their sentences reduced and pardoned so they can return to their families and to help develop the country," he said.

Lim Mony, a senior staffer with the rights group Adhoc who is working to promote the rights of women, said the government should encourage women to work freely. She also called for an end to political discrimination against women.

“We have to understand that they are helping society rather than working against the government,” she told RFA. “They are working for the sake of the national interest.”

Attempts by RFA to reach government spokesman Phay Siphan about the NGOs’ concerns went unanswered Wednesday.

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