Cambodia's Mu Sochua sets a great example for motivating women to run for office. Run, women, run!
With the threat of arrest by the majority government pressing down on her, Mu Sochua has called out to the international community to warn about the increasing corruption and authoritarian nature of Cambodia’s ruling party.
But before she was a top politician and rights activists, Mu Sochua lived a relatively sheltered life under the roof of her trader parents. However, her world shifted when she went abroad to receive an international education. After initially earning an undergrad degree in France, she went on to earn a Masters in Social Work from UC Berkeley in the 70s. Many Cambodians were fleeing thier country at this time due to the genocide being commited by the ruling Khmer Rouge government, in which 25% of the general population died. Although Mu Sochua was just in her 20s, she used her training and took on great responsibility in helping her fellow countrywomen and countrymen adjust to American life.
In 1989, Sochua returned to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge had been overthrown and soon entered political life. Within a year of entering parliament, she was appointed as the Minister of Women’s and Veterans Affairs.
Within this position, Sochua fought to end worker exploitation, curb sex trafficking, and developed Cambodia’s first major legislation on violence against women. Moreover, in 2002, Sochua started a campaign to get women involved in politics. In form not traditionally seen, she traveled to the countryside, talking to villagers face to face, encouraging rural women to run so that they could represent themselves and their communities. Largely because of her efforts, 25,000 women ran for office, and 9% were successfully elected. Because of the tremendous strides she made for the women of Cambodia, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
“More than once I have come face-to-face with armed police and military. My strategy for self-protection is to remain vocal, visible and high profile. I strongly believe in people’s participation and in giving women a fair share of development. This can only happen when the government demonstrates a strong political will to develop and implement policies that create special measures and opportunities for women to gain a fair share of development. ”
However, after becoming frustrated with the levels of corruption she was seeing in the governing party ruled by Hun Sen, she switched to the oppositional, Rescue Party. Her outspoken and often antagonistic critiques of the government led her to become a common target for ridicule and disrespect. In 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen described her as having “strong legs” a phrase commonly used to describe prostitutes in Cambodia. Not tolerating this rhetoric, Mu Sochua sued him for defamation. In childlike fashion, the Prime Minister countersued her for defamation with the logic being that any accusation against the prime minister is inherently defamatory.
Although Mu Sochua was initially convicted for defamation, after a long legal battle and pressure from international interests she was able to escape jail time and a hefty fine.
However, the government has once again begun to intensify aggressive measures, threatening to arrest anyone known to be defiant to the current regime. Mu Sochua has said that in the upcoming election the opposition will not run as it would be:
“Political suicide for the opposition because we won’t win because it will be totally rigged … If we play the game of Mr Hun Sen, we may as well kill ourselves politically.”
Despite the obstacles and personal dangers she faces, Mu Sochua continues to speak up on keeping democratic structures alive in Cambodia, structures that make it possible for change to happen in the lives of everyday people.
“As a woman leader I lead with the strong belief that women bring stability and peace, at home, in their communities and for the nation. I feel most satisfied when the women’s networks move together, create a critical mass and gain political space.” - Mu Sochua
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