A leading activist for gender equality in Cambodia, Mu Sochua explains what keeps her fighting to Mai Lynn Miller Nguyen.
Mu Sochua is a mother of three daughters, a current member of parliament, and a former cabinet minister. Born to a Cambodian-Chinese family, she was sent to study in France during the war and instability of the early 1970s. She earned a master’s degree in social work at University of California Berkeley, a centre of anti-Vietnam War protests, and went on to work in camps for Cambodian refugees along the Thai border.
In 1989, Mu achieved her dream of coming home. Ever since, she has crusaded for the protection of women’s rights in a male-dominated society, speaking out about human trafficking, exploitation of female labourers, and domestic violence. She receives worldwide recognition for her work, including the 2005 Vital Voices Human Rights Global Leadership Award presented by Hilary Clinton.
Mu joined the Sam Rainsy opposition in 2004, serving as the party’s first female secretary-general and a parliamentary representative of Kampot province. Looking ahead to the 2012 elections, she continues to walk the campaign trail, going from village to village to hear the concerns of Cambodian women and men.
What motivated you to become a voice for Cambodian women?
My mother, who had only a three-year education. I remember the time when I was eight or nine, she was still learning how to read and spell her name at the same time that she was trying to sew our New Year’s dresses. I think the centre of attention for her was to see that she could afford for her children, especially her daughters, to go to school and not have her life of low education.
What do you feel is a key issue for women at the moment? It is extremely vital that women have an education. It gives a future that is a guarantee. At least 25% of the national budget should be invested in education. An educated girl child will have a totally different view of herself, which is built on self-confidence. Without an education, that sense of opportunity, hope and belonging is not even going to have a start.
We have millions and billions of dollars invested in the development of Cambodia as a whole, but an emphasis on education and healthcare has not taken place strongly enough for women to benefit from it.
What was your focus during your six years as the first woman to lead the Ministry of Women’s and Veteran’s Affairs?
I was very much aware that people were watching for a role model. I was aware that people had hope. I was doing everything possible to make a strategy for gender equality that is inclusive, involving many men and the elites as well as the people from the grassroots level.
I seek a platform for women, a platform for all. We cannot begin development if we do not address this issue of equality, whether it is gender equality, socio-economic equality, or political equality.
When I was minister, we launched a programme of ‘women are precious gems’. Men are gold, women are precious gems. We need a society that values women as precious gems. That precious gem must be protected, not put at risk.
What are the responsibilities of female politicians in Cambodia?
For the first time in 2002, women entered politics at the local level. As minister, I pushed for the quota and said it’s okay for women to be leaders and seek power. I campaigned very widely with women, I brought the entire ministry from top to bottom, I went on bike campaign.
I really believe that women need to enter politics. We need to refrain from repeating party lines. We’re not the mouthpieces of the party; we are the mouthpieces of women in Cambodia. We need to answer to our women, we need to be responsible to our women. We cannot find any more excuses. Our women are raped everyday.
You are featured in the documentary film Redlight, which concerns sex trafficking. What are the causes for the ongoing exploitation of women in Cambodia?
When parents sell their children, it is a lack of education, it is despair. Why do the victims still respect their parents even after they’ve been sold? It’s because they know their parents didn’t have a choice.
When the choices are so narrow, and even narrower because of inflation, because there is no one to speak on their behalf, when the land is taken away from them, when children have to miss school because their families cannot pay for transportation, I think this is total injustice.
If our women have nothing but their bodies to sell in order to bring the food home, I think it is the society that needs to be judged and not let the society judge them. There needs to be a really strong message from society, a message of no to violence, no to discrimination and exploitation of our women.
Development is not progress unless it is equally shared and women can be safe from violence and exploitation.
In 2005, you were part of a group of 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the promotion of non-violence. How did you feel about the commendation?
I really think I don’t deserve it. The women who fight every day to bring food home, those should be the Nobel Prize Laureates. Those are the ones who should be given the full attention.
I am always so ashamed of myself when I read the newspaper and think, I have done pretty close to nothing. When it comes to the land issue, violence against women, sex trafficking, I ask myself everyday, how can I do it better? Everyday I look at the failure, everyday I push myself harder to ask how can I be smarter than this.
You have had the opportunity to meet many prominent female leaders, including Hilary Clinton and most recently, Aung San Suu Kyi. Who are the women who most inspire you?
The women who really inspire me are those who want to be politicians. I just came back from Battambang for training the future candidates for the local elections in 2012. Before going, I was sick, I was tired, I was depressed. When I came back two days later, my feet are kicking again.
Every time it is the same thing, I get down and then go out to the field and come back full of energy again. But I am 57 years old, I don’t have the same energy I once had. I don’t want to stay on forever. I want to be able to have young women take action for change.