Nobel Prize nominee Mu Sochua, an advocate for rule of law and rights for women in Cambodia, is a remarkable study in contrasts.
At 55, she is an exotic beauty, slender, soft-spoken, graceful and charming. She is also alarmingly brave and intensely committed. As the most outspoken female leader of the opposition party in an impoverished post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, she risks her life in calling publicly for the cessation of sex trafficking, equality for women and an end to the corruption that is endemic to all levels of Cambodian society.
Mu Sochua made numerous appearances in Westport last week, raising awareness about her work as a Cambodian lawmaker to promote greater equality and freedom for women in her country and to publicize the deeply disturbing film documentary “Redlight,” an expose about the global issue of sex trafficking of children.
Mu Sochua is featured in the film, which focuses on the personal stories of the victims of child sexploitation and the efforts made thus far to try to stop the crime, which is so prevalent in Cambodia. “Redlight” was directed by an award-winning Israeli filmmaker, Guy Jacobsen, and was shown in Westport and Ridgefield last week with personal appearances by both Mu Sochua and Guy Jacobson.
Mu Sochua also made a day-long appearance at Staples High School, speaking with students in the about the situation in her country. She also made a special presentation to the Staples High School chapter of Teen Vital Voices, where Westport teens are learning about women empowering other women.
Mu Sochua is sponsored by Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international non-profit organization that trains and empowers emerging women leaders and entrepreneurs around the world, with the goal of creating a better world for those in impoverished and underserved countries.
The Connecticut Chapter of Vital Voices brought Mu Sochua to Westport and Ridgefield, where she participated in a number of events aimed at highlighting the devastating effects of poverty and lawlessness in her country. Her demands, made in her firm but soft-spoken voice, are for laws which Americans take for granted, such as the enforcement of the laws which make illegal the practice of sex slavery by children.
In an interview with the Minuteman, Mu Sochua said, “There is a Cambodian proverb which says, ‘Men are gold, women are just a white piece of cloth.’ Gold can be worn forever. It is always solid, but a white piece of cloth can be stained forever. In Cambodia, if you are raped, you are ruined forever. If you are divorced you are ruined forever. Society will not accept you. If you are independent of your husband you are a ‘bad woman.’
“As a Cambodian Cabinet Minister, I committed myself to changing this proverb to ‘men are gold, but women are precious gems.’ Now my supporters are known throughout Cambodia as ‘precious gems.’
“We have a large problem with domestic violence. When I was minister, we did not blame the men, but gave a picture of a family where the gold and precious gems to work together in order for the family to be intact with a sense of harmony. We did not ask women to demand equal rights, but tried to make the men understand that a sense of harmony is for the family, and that men and women should share the same responsibility to raise the family.”
At 18, Mu Sochua’s family sent her abroad to escape the Khmer Rouge and to get an education. She received a Masters degree from the University of California at Berkeley, where she was deeply influenced by the women’s movement. Those were also the years the Khmer Rouge swept through Cambodia, killing millions in just three and a half years, including Mu Sochua’s parents.
“The scar of the Khmer Rouge is so deep, it is carved into our minds, our souls. I suffer the pain of an outsider, the loss of my parents, and of course, having to grow up outside the country and reconstruct my life from then on.”
Remarkably, she says she holds no grudges and it is with that kind of attitude that she has positioned herself as leader and lawmaker and a role model to young women in Cambodia.
When Mu Sochua returned to Cambodia 18 years after she left, she was appointed to lead the Ministry for Women’s Affairs. She took the job, which she describes as “being in charge of 52 percent of the population,” far more seriously than those who appointed her ever imagined.
“I wanted to bring in western values of feminism and equality. Slowly, I slipped the ideas through, mainstreaming them into family life and culture, but at the same time saying that education is a right, quality of life and free health care are rights and women can be in charge of their own bodies.”
According to Mu Sochua, Cambodia is 85 percent rural, with an extremely high poverty rate. Four million of the 14 million population live on less than a dollar a day, a fundamental cause of the everyday violence and the rampant sex trade.
“The government is corrupt. We have the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, with violence agains women and a culture of impunity. Our present is still haunted by the genocide of the past, which occurred thirty years ago,” said Mu Sochua.
Undaunted by the enormity of the task, she fights each day to improve the situation. “As an opposition lawmaker we know things could be better. We demand a strong rule of law, accountability and the end of violence against women and the end of social stigmatization of victims.”
Not surprisingly, this kind of public opposition was met head on by the Prime Minister of Cambodia. The two clashed in a battle of words and the Prime Minister started a public campaign against her.
“His speeches against me were broadcast on the radio across the country,” she said. “He even said he would finish my political life.” The battle went on for months, and although Mu Sochua lost the lawsuit, she gained much more public recognition and took advantage of the opportunity to defend her right to justice and a fair trial, and what she calls “the right of a woman to be seen and to be considered as a human rights defender.”
She was nearly imprisoned, but the government ultimately backed off when it appeared that the publicity generated by the imprisonment would be too visible and help Mu Sochua’s cause. Instead she was fined $4,000, a king’s ransom in a country where teachers make $50 a month.
“Now I am seen totally differently, even by the Prime Minister. I am a very straightforward lawmaker, although sometimes outrageous, but I do make sense to the people. I am now widely recognized and I still continue to take these causes very seriously.”
Even as she has gained a measure of renown in her own country, Mu Sochua is broadening her battle. She is seeking funding from the United States government to help the growth of democracy in Cambodia. She is hopes to obtain funds for more entrepreneurial opportunity for women in the form of microbusinesses run by women in local villages in order to decrease the level of poverty. She hopes for greater educational opportunity and access, and funding for more radio and television access. Dreams of technology are still far off, as less than one percent of the population is computer literate. Recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Cambodia, with a message of support for the protection of human rights. “I want delivery on that promise,” she said.
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