International Women’s Day: Listening to Mu Sochoa

Today marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women around the world. I was reading some of the coverage in anticipation of attending the second annual Women in the World summit later this week in Manhattan, when I came across this quote in Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s Newsweek cover piece on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“That was the day I decided to enter politics,” says [Mu] Sochua, now a prominent Cambodian opposition leader. “Watching her I had the sense that I could do it, that other women could do it, if we really spoke from the bottom of our hearts and reflected the voices of women.”

On a rainy day last October, I found myself rattling through the narrow streets of Florence in a crowded mini-bus and chatting with Mu, who has worked for many years for women’s rights in Cambodia’s post-conflict society. The Newsweek quote referred to Clinton’s famed Beijing speech of 1995 when she equated women’s rights with human rights, a crucial moment in the international movement to empower women; the conference Mu and I were attending, organized by Vital Voices, was directly inspired by the Clinton speech 15 years earlier.

During our conversation, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Mu’s focus on practical political objectives – by an intense determination to affect political change as an elected politician, to channel symbolism and soaring rhetoric into a movement at the polls and – eventually – in policy. Later, she spoke from the dais during a panel discussion hosted by Mayor Matteo Renzi in Florence’s soaring “town hall,” the Palazzo Vecchio.

“The absence of war,” she said. “Does not the mean the presence of rights and safety for women and girls if society continues to condone gender based-violence and if equal opportunities are not present for all.”

Even as many of us celebrate the freedom movements rolling through repressed societies in the Middle East, it’s clear those revolutions will not really be successes without the political involvement of women. Today, for example, a women’s day March in Tahrir Square in Cairo to call attention to the need for more political power for Egyptian women was marred by a gross sexist counter-demonstration; and it is hardly surprising that no women are represented on the commission charged with drawing up a new Egyptian constitution.

In Cambodia, Mu Sochua’s work shows that real change requires long-term commitment – and sometimes, public opposition to those in power. After 18 years in exile (she was sent away by here parents as a teenager in the violent 1970s), Mu returned to Cambodia in 1989 and served as adviser on women’s affairs to the prime minister, was elected to the national assembly and was minister of women’s and a veterans’ affairs from 1998 to 2004, a position she relinquished to join the Sam Rainsy Party, the leading opposition party in Cambodia. It hasn’t been an easy path:

My approach to peace has always been through building voices and forces with various groups, either at local, national, regional or international level. I strongly believe in a life free from fear and violence. My efforts have always been for long-term development which includes development of human resources for Cambodia, where most of our teachers, doctors, judges were killed during the Khmer Rouge years.

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.

In 2002 Mu mobilized 12,000 women candidates to run for commune elections, with over 900 women winning and still actively promoting the women’s agenda at the grass-roots level. In that same year she helped create and pass the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill, which imposes severe penalties on marital rape and abuse of minors. Her work in Cambodia also includes campaigns with men to end domestic violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS; working for the rights of female entrepreneurs; working for labor laws that provide fair wages and safe working conditions for female workers; and working for the development of communities for squatters with schools, health centers, sanitation, and employment.

This work put her in opposition to the government, which has taken action against her. She was threatened with arrest, and promptly sued the government for defamation and wrote a public letter (“As I Walk to Prison“) that is model for civil protest using the power of words:

I witness violence not as a victim but I listen to hundreds and thousands of women and children speak of the shame, the violation, the soul that is taken away when violence is afflicted on their bodies and on their minds. As a politician I always try to take action, to walk to the villages where life seems to have stopped for centuries, I challenge the top leadership of the government — I question international aid.

Today, I am faced with the real possibility of going to jail because as self-defense I dare to sue the prime minister of Cambodia, a man who has ruled this nation for 30 years. Having been assaulted to the point where I stood half exposed in front of men, by a general I caught using a state car to campaign for the party of the prime minister, I found myself assaulted again, this time verbally by the prime minister who compares me to a woman hustler who grabbed men for attention.

Mu Sochoa’s struggle continues, yet it’s clearly part of an international movement that’s growing. Today, Women for Women International organized hundreds of events linking women in post-conflict societies in the Join Me on the Bridge campaign. The event is symbolic – it calls on participants “to stand up for peace and an end to violence against women” – but it also brings young activists together and binds them in a common purpose. After all, Mu Sochoa’s words have resonance in Afghanistan, in Egypt, in Belarus, and in cities through the United States as well:

We must walk tall despite being people bent from the trauma of the Khmer Rouge, which is still a part of us. Let us not let our leaders and the world-community use this trauma to give us justice by the teaspoon.

Let there be real justice.

Notes: More International Women’s Day coverage:  The Guardian asked women leaders to share their life experiences and The Daily Beast and Newsweek marked the day with a list of 150 remarkable women around the world.