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[First Person] the Women Left Behind

Branded as the Friday Women of Cambodia, wives, and mothers with no weapons, holding signs, wearing their husbands’ t-shirts, picket courts and embassies, even if they face arrest and violence’

Cambodia has been described as the “land of the widows.” Decades of war and political oppression have left many women with no choice but to be head of the household, as their husbands have been either killed or put behind bars.

I am one of the lucky ones. My husband died of natural causes. But the pain of being a widow becomes much worse now that I am living in exile and cannot visit the final resting place of my husband.   

Being in exile is like when your loved ones are taken away from you in the most unjust way. It is not a choice – it is forced upon you. Much like what many Cambodian widows go through.

I remembered getting a call on that fateful day, it was almost nighttime. Someone warned me that I would be arrested. Our party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved just a month before, and our leader, Kem Sokha, was already taken from his home by around 200 police officers. I feared for my life. I know that I was no longer safe, so I packed my suitcase and fled.

Six years have passed since that day, but I still feel the fear and the pain. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to my daughters and my loved ones. I didn’t know where to go. Cambodia is my home and fleeing it was never part of my agenda. The uncertainty of not knowing where you’ll wake up the next day, whose room, whose bed you’ll sleep in, will bring you discomfort mentally, physically, and emotionally. My family didn’t know where to find me the next day because I was moving fast. The regime had its eyes everywhere. The Cambodian authorities had blacklisted me, and I was thrown away by Thai immigration when I tried to come back home in 2019. Until now, even after three attempts, I am unable to return.

And one of the painful things about being away from home is that I can no longer visit my late husband. I brought his ashes to Cambodia in 2016 and I was able to honor his wish to have them scattered in the river where our family house is. He taught the children the values of respect, patience, and compassion – he was the center of the family, and he brought all of us together. He supported me in everything. When I am by the water, I miss our home. I miss the family. I miss being on the campaign trail with him. I miss the rivers, the mountains, and the rice trails. And just like me, a lot of Cambodian women still long for their loved ones. 

During the Khmer Rouge period, women were subjected to forced labor, sexual violence, and other forms of abuse. Women at that time accounted for 60% of the population, and one-third of them were widows. These women were forced to become the principal breadwinners of their families. Today, 44 years later, our women are still going through the same experience.

Just last year, more than 100 activists and politicians from the opposition party, many of them males, were charged with alleged treason or incitement against Cambodia’s ruling party. Their mass arrest left their wives as the head of the households. These women are responsible for providing for the family’s basic needs and ensuring that their children are healthy, well-fed, and safe. They also supervise their children’s education and social development. They take care of the house – from cleaning to grocery shopping and cooking. And since the fathers are gone, it is also their job to provide emotional support and comfort in these times of crises. But despite all these, these women are still tirelessly protesting on the streets to demand their husbands’ release. Branded as the Friday Women of Cambodia, wives, and mothers with no weapons, holding signs, wearing their husbands’ t-shirts, picket courts and embassies, even if they face arrest and violence. They’re putting their lives and their bodies on the line. 

As the Cambodian election comes to a near, it seems that this women’s movement has moved beyond fighting for themselves and their husbands – they have moved towards justice for all. Their voice is more political – they are now protesting for free and fair elections and the release of all prisoners of conscience. Recently, during the ASEAN meeting summit in Cambodia, they held their Women’s March with signages that pushed for democracy and human rights in ASEAN. Friday Women is the picture of the full strength of women – politically, economically, and morally speaking. As the Friday Women movement continues to grow, there is hope that it will inspire more women to take action and become leaders in their own sphere. 

Looking back, it was the same conviction and dedication that pushed me to enter politics. Cambodia was plagued with poverty and riddled with landmines. Phnom Penh had become a destination for sexual predators who exploited vulnerable young women and girls. I knew things had to change. I needed to fight for the rights that had been stripped away from these women. And now, as the deputy president of CNRP, I have been traveling with a suitcase around the world to tell the story of Cambodia and look for ways to bring our country back to the path of democracy. I have been advocating for human rights, freedom, and the rule of law, but now I know that I am not alone in this fight. I have my sisters in Cambodia who are going through the same battle and becoming a voice of defiance. I look forward to the day that I can work with these women on the streets of Cambodia. 

As I sit here in my place of exile, my thoughts are consumed with the longing to return home. It has been too long since I have seen the familiar sights and sounds of my homeland. But Cambodia can only be safe if the opposition parties will be allowed to operate freely without the fear of being dissolved again or being prosecuted. If the voters – the people – are safe to make statements and express their opinions. If there is an independent and free media, and an independent National Election Commission. And if Hun Sen will allow the opposition members in exile to be able to come home and drop all charges against them. 

Until then, I will continue to advocate for democracy, freedom, and the rule of law whenever and from wherever I am. I owe this to all the widows and all women left behind in Cambodia. I owe it to my people. 

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