by Rhyen Coombs
World Pulse sat down with MP and women's rights activist Mu Sochua in Berkeley, CA, just before she returned to Cambodia, where she fears new charges of treason and prison for her fight against corruption.
Just before returning to Cambodia, where she faces legal pressure and a possible prison sentence, women’s rights advocate and Member of Parliament Mu Sochua sat down with World Pulse in Berkeley, CA. She was winding down a six-week visit to the US, where she spoke out against government corruption and eroding human rights in her home country, and launched a fundraising campaign for her latest women’s initiative, called DEVI.
It was a long trip for Sochua—the longest she had been away from Cambodia since she returned there in 1989, after spending 18 years in exile from the violence of the Khmer Rouge. Since then, she has been a champion of the women’s movement, battling sex trafficking and domestic violence, and serving as the first female Minister of Women’s Affairs in 1998. As a member of the opposition party, she organized 25,000 women to run for office in 2002, with 900 elected.
Over the last year, however, Sochua’s fight against corruption has brought her head to head with Prime Minister Sen in a court battle she sees as an attempt to silence her. With legal pressure from the Cambodian government growing, Sochua returned to the US, where she received her master’s degree in Social Welfare from the University of California, Berkeley in 1981.
As we walked through the sunlit trees of her alma mater, Sochua seemed at ease. Between lectures and luncheons, meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and testifying before the Human Rights Commission, she found time to rest. She had reconnected with friends and family, seen her daughter off to Columbia University, and was now hoping for a swim before that night’s fundraising dinner for DEVI.
The US became her protective sanctuary this summer, Sochua said. “You can’t continue speaking out without fear of prosecution.”
Before a standing-room-only crowd at a September 15 event sponsored by the School of Social Welfare, Sochua’s customary calm slipped, her voice shaking slightly as she shared that morning’s news from Cambodia. A government spokesperson had called her a traitor in the press, in a country where treason may lead to a prison sentence of 20 years to life.
Sochua’s struggle in the courts began last year, when she filed a defamation suit after Prime Minister Sen made a negative comment about her on television. In retaliation, her case was thrown out and Sen brought one of his own, accusing her of defamation instead. Found guilty and charged with a $4,200 fine, Sochua plans to appeal. However, stripped of her parliamentary immunity, she is now open to attack and imprisonment for refusing to accept the verdict.
“The appeal should come up anytime this month,” Sochua said. “I am sure I will be found guilty again, because we're talking about a court system that is totally controlled by the Prime Minister himself.”
Sochua is not alone. According to a recent Asian Human Rights Commission report, the Cambodian government is increasingly turning to the courts to silence opposition from journalists and human rights defenders.
Even still, she refuses to back down from her case, viewing it not only as a fight against injustice and corruption, but also as a signal to the women of Cambodia.
“For women who are battered, who are sold, who are facing such a challenge to access the court—I have to go all the way. It’s a signal that they do not have to fear. They are not alone.”
Women like these are the primary focus of DEVI, a new organization Sochua founded in Cambodia last year, just as the financial crisis began rippling from US markets across the globe. As an umbrella NGO for grassroots women’s groups working for social and economic justice, DEVI’s goal is to “serve as a safe place for women to weave together a vision for change” while allowing them to share resources. Among those groups are Strey Khmer, which helps communities provide basic health care for women who cannot afford it; Mea Kea Strey, which provides business skills and credit to women weavers and vendors; and Grassroots Women for Change, which encourages women’s entry into local and national politics.
DEVI’s first collaboration is DEVI Crepes, a micro-franchise project to help recently laid-off garment workers start their own small businesses, rather than resorting to the entertainment industry, which is often code for sex work.
The global financial crisis has hit Cambodia’s garment exports hard. Until recently, according to the International Labor Organization, the largely female industry employed 350,000 people and generated nearly 80% of the country’s export earnings. However, when orders from the West plummeted, exports fell by a third, forcing many factories to shut down or begin lay-offs. By June, according to ILO estimates, 64,000 garment workers had lost their jobs – most of them uneducated women from rural communities.
A July report from the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking indicates that many are turning to karaoke bars, beer gardens, and sex parlors as their best option. This, says Sochua, is an alarming trend.
“Women who are entering the entertainment sector industry in Cambodia are faced with violence and exploitation,” she said. “That choice is not a great choice.”
DEVI Crepes could offer them a better one.
The project intends to give women the tools and training to run their own food cart businesses in Phnom Penh, where organic, hygienically-prepared crepes are healthier than the average street food and would sell well. The $256 invested by DEVI in working capital and equipment – such as pans, utensils, and the cart itself – would then be repaid by each woman over 18 months. According to DEVI projections, a former garment worker could make $200 a month operating her cart – double what she would make on average in the entertainment industry.
“It is very cost-effective,” Sochua said. “It builds up confidence and self-reliance, as well as unity, and will push forward sustainable economic empowerment for women who have very little skills and very little education.”
If all goes according to DEVI’s most recent business plan, the first 10 crepe vendors will hit the streets of Phnom Penh in October. While DEVI must raise $20,000 to get the enterprise started, it intends to be self-sustainable by December 2010.
The crepe mini-franchise is only the first of many projects DEVI envisions. Others include helping organic farmers reach local markets through better promotion, and conducting village hearings for women to share their problems and solutions with each other and experts.
DEVI’s ultimate fundraising goal is $200,000, of which Sochua estimates $20,000 has been raised so far. Many donations have come from house parties, like the one Sochua attended in supporter Morry Hermón’s Berkeley home just before returning to Cambodia.
“My wife [Sandhya] and I were encouraged to know that there are brave women helping other girls and women to find an economic alternative to selling their bodies,” Hermón said. “Since we have a home that is conducive to a small gathering, we decided to throw Sochua and DEVI a little party.”
Sochua joined Hermón and Sandhya in the kitchen, where they filled the dinner table with savory Cambodian and Indian dishes. By inviting friends into their home to share a casual meal and learn more about DEVI, the Hermóns raised $2,500 – enough to fund the first 10 small-business owners of DEVI Crepes.
While Sochua may not be able to join you in your own kitchen, you can throw your own creative party for DEVI, or make a tax-deductible donation through their US partner organization, The WAVE Project.
“I am urging you,” Sochua said, “to please help organize your house party, or your tea party—in the sense that it is helping with women, not just having tea! We're talking about things that are very feasible, ways that every one of you can take action.”