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16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence: Um Sophy

Published on December 5, 2018

To mark the international campaign 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence (25 November – 10 December) LICADHO is highlighting women land campaigners and human rights defenders who face state violence in Cambodia.

At least a half a million Cambodians have lost their land and homes in forced evictions over the last two decades and women have been at the forefront of peaceful protests demanding justice and fair compensation. Their activism has often been met with violent attacks by security forces as well as judicial harassment and arbitrary detention.

Over the 16 days, we are publishing profiles of women who – despite many hardships – continue to speak out in solidarity with others to demand justice.

Um Sophy (39) has faced serious harassment, multiple criminal cases and even lost her job as a teacher as a result of her tireless activism to defend her community’s land against a politically connected company.

They think we are rebelling against them. But we only protested to demand our land, our livelihood, and our homes.

She has lived in Lor Peang village in Kampong Chhnang province since 2004. In 2006, a representative from KDC International – a company owned by Chea Kheng, the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem – worked with local officials to forcibly buy the land around the village, despite more than 50 families – Sophy’s included – never agreeing to sell.

“They [the authorities] think we are rebelling against them,” Sophy said. “But we only protested to demand our land, our livelihood, and our homes.”

In 2009 she was accused of incitement by Kampong Chhnang provincial court and left the country for Thailand for two years, fearing for her safety.

When she returned, she once again took a leading role in advocating for the land rights of her community. She would later receive a note posted on her house warning her that if she did not stop protesting, both her and her husband would be arrested or killed. She refused to be silenced and continued to be a leader in the community.

Negotiations between villagers and KDC began again in 2014, but quickly deteriorated and the company once again resorted to violence and legal threats against Sophy and other villagers.

Even though we cry, our tears are our strength and our energy to carry on.

Um Sophy faced legal charges again in 2017, this time for defamation. In January 2018, KDC began clearing the land where she lived, destroying 14 homes and the crops of many of the village’s residents.

Her struggle has been hard on her family. “Our livelihood has not been improved by our activism,” she said. “Other activists’ livelihoods are also not better, but instead they face unemployment.”

But Sophy said she will continue to advocate for her rights and for others.

“I want to say to the world that women must be strong. Even though we cry, our tears are our strength and our energy to carry on.”

“Even though there are so many people who think women are weak, women across the world have to stand together and struggle for our victory, our rights and our freedom.”

MP3 format: Listen to audio version in Khmer