Crusader Rowing Upstream in Cambodia

Justin Mott for The New York Times

Incumbent Mu Sochua, 55, is already campaigning for the 2013 parliamentary election

Published: February 21, 2010

MAK PRAING, CAMBODIA — “I’m going to get my votes!” cried Mu Sochua as she stepped into a slender rowboat, holding one side for balance. “One by one.”

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A Woman's Face in Opposition

Justin Mott for The New York Times

Mu Sochua in Kampot, Cambodia meeting with constituents. More Photos »

She was crossing a small river here in southern Cambodia on a recent stop in her never-ending campaign for re-election to Parliament, introducing herself to rural constituents who may never have seen her face.

The most prominent woman in Cambodia’s struggling political opposition, Mu Sochua, 55, is campaigning now, three years before the next election, because she is almost entirely excluded from government-controlled newspapers and television.

“Only 35 percent of voters know who won the last election,” she said.

She has no time to lose.

Ms. Mu Sochua is a member of a new generation of women who are working their way into the political systems of countries across Asia and elsewhere, from local councils to national assemblies and cabinet positions.

A former minister of women’s affairs, she did as much as anyone to put women’s issues on the agenda of Cambodia as it emerged in the 1990s from decades of war and mass killings. But she lost her public platform in 2004 when she broke with the government, and she is now finding it as difficult to promote her ideas as it is to simply gain attention as a candidate.

She says her signal achievement, leading the way for women into thousands of government positions, has done little to advance women’s issues in a stubbornly male-dominated society.

And like dissidents and opposition figures in many countries, she has found herself with a new burden: battling for her own rights. As she has risen in prominence, the political stands she has taken have become a greater liability to her than gender bias has been.

Most recently, she has been caught in a bizarre tit-for-tat exchange of defamation suits with the country’s domineering prime minister, Hun Sen, in which, to no one’s surprise, she was the loser.

It started last April here in Kampot Province, her constituency, when Mr. Hun Sen referred to her with the phrase “cheung klang,” or “strong legs,” an insulting term for a woman in Cambodia.

She sued him for defamation; he stripped her of her parliamentary immunity and sued her back. Her suit was dismissed in the politically docile courts. In August she was convicted of defaming the prime minister and fined 16.5 million riel, or about $4,000, which she has refused to pay.

“Now I live with the uncertainty about whether I’m going to go to jail,” she said in a recent interview. “I’m not going to pay the fine. Paying the fine is saying to all Cambodian women, ‘What are you worth? A man can call you anything he wants, and there is nothing you can do.”’

This gesture is one of the few ways she has left to champion the rights of women, the central passion of her public life.

As an outspoken opponent of the prime minister, she has found, her participation taints any group, action or demonstration with the stigma of political opposition.

“My voice kills the movement,” she said. “It’s my failure. Now I am the face of the opposition, a woman’s face in opposition. Women say, ‘We believe in you. We admire you. But we can’t be with you because the movement will die.”’

During her six years as minister of women’s affairs, Ms. Mu Sochua campaigned against child abuse, marital rape, violence against women, human trafficking and the exploitation of female workers. She helped draft the country’s law against domestic violence.

In part because of her work, she said, “People are aware about gender. It’s a new Cambodian word: ‘gen-de.’ People are aware that women have rights.”

But where political empowerment of women is concerned, she said, quantity has not produced quality, and prominence has not translated into progress for a women’s agenda.


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