In elections from the State of Mexico to the councils of Cambodia, women are on the move

Delfina Gómez Álvarez

This weekend saw three major elections. In Lesotho, people went to the polls to elect a Prime Minister … for the third time in three years. Despite a heavy presence of military at the polls, generally reports are that everything was orderly and reasonably fair and free. The other two elections, for the Governor of the State of Mexico and for council and commune seats in Cambodia, the electoral story is all about women: Delfina Gómez Álvarez in Mexico, and in Cambodia, Mu Sochua, Tep Vanny, Preah Vihear, Jen Juri, Kem Tola, Sok Da, Khum Rany, Nget Chan Dara and countless others. While the particularities from Mexico to Cambodia my change, the story of the insurgent ascendancy of women in response to neoliberal models of so-called development that tally women as so many disposable bodies is the same. From Mexico to Cambodia, women are saying NO!

In the State of Mexico, known as Edomex, Delfina Gómez Álvarez, of the relatively new leftist Morena party, has been running a fierce campaign against a candidate who is president Enrique Peña Nieto’s cousin and whose party has ruled Edomex for 90 years. Additionally, his father and grandfather were governors of Edomex. So, it was a done deal, right? Wrong. Delfina Gómez covered the state, from one end to the other and all points in between, and the State of Mexico is Mexico’s most populous and most densely populated state. Not a member of an illustrious family, Delfina Gómez had spent most of her adult life as a teacher. When she entered politics, in 2012, she ran for Municipal President of Texcoco, and won. Delfina Gómez Álvarez was the first woman to win a municipal election in Texcoco. Now she’s taking that to the State level. It’s unclear, as of now, who won the election. Both sides are claiming victory, and the margins are narrow. What is clear is Delfina Gómez Álvarez, standing loud and proud, and urging the people onward.

In Cambodia, women –  like Yorm Bopha, Tep Vanny, Phan Chhunreth, Song Srey Leap, and Bo Chhorvy and thousands of others – have led the campaigns against land grabs, mass evictions, and other forms of `urban development.’ With the elections coming up, many activists – such as Jen Juri, Kem Tola, Sok Da, Khum Rany, Nget Chan Dara – decided to join Mu Sochua and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. Woman after woman told a version of the same story. They had had enough of both the patriarchal national form of so-called development AND the patriarchal forms of opposition. Despite the difficulties of moving up in any Cambodia party bureaucracy, they decided the time is now. They had pushed for so long, and still the bulldozers came, whole communities were removed, and if there was any public outcry, it was short lived and then forgotten.

As in Edomex, the results of the elections are not altogether clear. The national ruling party seems to have won at the national level, but in many regions, the CNRP did well, and women candidates did well.

Winning an election is important, terrifically and often terribly important, but so is entering the race, and in Mexico and Cambodia this weekend, that’s what women did. Where are the women? They’re in the garment factories and, like activist Tep Vanny, in the prisons, and they’re in the polling booths, on the election posters, on the platform and dais, in the meetings, and soon, very soon, they will be in the governor’s estate, in the council and commune bodies, and beyond. Soon, very soon, and not just in Cambodia and Mexico.

Khum Rany

 

(Photo Credit 1: Excelsior / Cuartoscuro) (Photo Credit 2: Phnom Penh Post / Pha Lina)

#LetThemStay: Australia tells asylum seekers detention is freedom

What does freedom mean? Don’t ask the Australian government, who this weekend hit a new low by proudly announcing it had released all refugee and asylum seeking children in Australia, when, apparently, it had merely changed their designation from “held detention” to “community detention”, without actually moving them. When torturing children just isn’t enough, try torturing the language as well. Freedom’s just another word …

Years ago, Australia’s government looked out upon the waters, saw small boats filled with desperate people, declared them a crisis and installed a state of emergency. The State has tried everything, from detention and torture to offshore detention and torture to way offshore detention and torture, from places like Villawood Immigration Detention Centre to Nauru Regional Processing Centre to who knows what or where in Cambodia. The landscape is littered with rising piles of bodies, commission reports, and expressions of shock at the routine torture of women, children, and men. Lately increasing numbers of Australians have protested in favor of a more open policy, under the banner #LetThemStay. And so, over the weekend, the State tried a new sleight of hand, and declared the war is over, even though the fighting actually continues.

When challenged on the terms of “release”, Australia’s Immigration Minister explained, “We’ve been able to make a modification to the arrangement so the children aren’t detained, they can have friends over, they can go out into the community.” Pushed by reporters, he further explained, “The same definitions apply today as they did before. There are certain characteristics that need to be met in relation to all these definitions, but that’s all beltway stuff. They’re outside of ‘held detention’, so that’s the answer that I’ve provided to you before.” Still unsatisfied with the release that is not a release, reporters continued to seek clarification, and a spokesperson for the Minister complied, “There are arrangements that have been put in place. Those arrangements now sit with the fact that it’s community detention.” That kind of obfuscation is “stuff” that beltways are made of.

Here’s the situation in plain words: “Families with children in `held detention’ in the `family compound’ of Villawood detention centre were told by letter on Friday that their detention was now classified as `community detention’. They have been `released’ from detention without moving.”

On Saturday night, a nineteen-year-old woman attempted suicide. Others will follow. Today Australia’s Immigration Minister vowed to ship the families to Nauruand beyond. The bodies pile up, the lies grow more intricate and more brazen, the shame deepens, and people and words are made to disappear. Soon, if all goes according to plan, no one will care about words like democracy, freedom, decency, or humanity.

 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Pacific Press / REX / Shutterstock)

Patriarchy never fails women; patriarchy always assaults women. #PatriarchyMustFall

In the news this week: in Cambodia rape victims have been “failed” by the so-called justice system; South Africa’s justice system is “failing” women; the United Kingdom “fails” women who suffer from domestic violence; and the United States’ program of mass incarceration fails all women, particularly women of color. The only problem with these “failures” is that they are successes. They are part and parcel of the public policy of patriarchy-as-nation-State. The State does not fail women; the State assaults women.

One of every twenty women in the world lives in the United States. One of every three women prisoners in the world is currently in a United States prison or jail, and that figure does not include immigrant detention centers. Globally, the 25 jurisdictions with the highest rate of female incarceration are 24 individual states and the District of Columbia. West Virginia tops that list, imprisoning 273 out of 100,000 women. There is no failure here. There is a decades long campaign to cage and otherwise brutalize women, and particularly women of color, all in the name of `protecting’ not only Society but also the women themselves.

In Cambodia, LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, released a report yesterday that documented the massive “failure” of the State to address rape: “LICADHO’s monitors report that it is usually the result of a failure by police to respond to reports by victims, and in some cases, of suspects being tipped off by police that a claim has been made against them … This report brings to light the immense failure of the Cambodian justice system to properly investigate and punish cases of sexual violence against women and children. The reasons for this failure are many: corruption, discriminatory attitudes towards women and girls, misinterpretation of the law, and lack of resources all combine to perpetuate and entrench a system in which impunity prevails.

“The report has focused on the failures of the justice system rather than on the experience of individual victims; it must not be forgotten that at the centre of all the cases discussed there were women and children who had experienced a terrifying and violent attack resulting in psychological and often physical trauma. The failure of the criminal justice system to punish their attackers compounds their experience of abuse and perpetuates the harm they suffer. Moreover, every failure to punish reinforces existing public mistrust of the Cambodian justice system and conveys the message that rape is not an offence that will be treated seriously; it not only lets down the victims concerned but reduces the likelihood that future victims will take the risk of reporting the crimes committed against them.”

There is no failure in Cambodia. Police refuse to respond. The State refuses to put women and children at the center. We hear similar reports from South Africa, where the justice system fails “to adequately address gender based violence since the impunity of men as rapists is tacitly accepted.” Likewise, in the United Kingdom, when the State proposes to cut or almost eliminate domestic violence services, we are told, “The current government is failing women.”

There is no failure here. The State seeks to reduce women’s autonomy and dignity, and thereby extract ever more value, all of which accrues to men’s power, stature, wealth and pleasure. None of this is new. It’s the oldest play in patriarchy’s rulebook. Stop calling structural violence against women “failure.” Call it violence against women, and stop it. #PatriarchyMustFall

 

(Photo Credit: EPA / Kim Ludbrook / Daily Maverick)

Australia’s shameful trade in refugees and asylum seekers

What’s the going rate, the market value, for refugees and asylum seekers these days? Ask the Australian government.

Australia and Cambodia are close to finalizing a deal on refugees. No one seems to know the details of this arrangement, because both countries are keeping it very hush-hush. But what we do know is it involves refugees and asylum seekers being moved from Australia’s catastrophic adventure in Nauru, to Cambodia. Some, in the Cambodia opposition, say this could involve as many as 1000 refugees, and they are most likely going to be `relocated’ on a remote island off the coast of Cambodia.

We also know that Australia is one of Cambodia’s largest aid donors. Over the past four years, for example, Australia has donated over $329 million to Cambodia. We know that Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. We also know that Australia has criticized Cambodia’s human rights record, more than once and most recently at the United Nations.

We are told that refugees will be `relocated’ only if they volunteer, but if they refuse to volunteer, their refugee status will be reviewed.

In both Cambodia and Australia, opposition to this deal has been fierce and intense. Much of it has centered on the conditions in Cambodia and the folly of sending refugees, many of them fleeing the violence of conflict zones, to an area just emerging from a long and brutal civil war. Others point to the economic hardship of life in Cambodia and others to the difficult political, civil and human rights situation.

What about the marketization of refugees and asylum seekers? Australia won’t be `relocating’ refugees. It will be dumping human beings, like so much cargo, and wiping its hands clean … or dirty. One thousand human beings who have asked for help and have already been dumped on one inhospitable island are now to be dumped again on another, even more inhospitable island? This `deal’ takes the privatization of `care’ for asylum seekers and refugees to a new, and yet very old, place: offshoring.

Cambodia will `volunteer’ to take the refugees because Australia has offered it cold, hard cash, or financial benefits. And so the entire region will become one giant marketplace for human cargo, not quite slaves, not quite not slaves.

 

(Photo Credit: TheDiplomat.com)

In Cambodia, the women are saying, “No!”

Yorm Bopha, Tep Vanny, Phan Chhunreth, Song Srey Leap, and Bo Chhorvyfive women land rights activists – were arrested today, while peacefully petitioning for the release of other Boeung Kak lake activists arrested over the weekend. Boeung Kak lake, in the heart of Phnom Penh, has been the site of major `urban development’, which means mass evictions. And women have been the heart of the Boeung Kak lake pro-democracy, women’s rights, community rights, land rights movements.

These arrests take place against the backdrop of the recent women garment worker demonstrations across Cambodia, and the State response of criminalization and repression of public dissent and gathering. Women workers have been protesting for over a year. In many ways, they have been protesting for decades.

This is the face of Cambodian `stability’ and `development’: women facing mass eviction, women facing super exploitation. In both instances, the logic has followed the gender of sacrifice. Women must give up land and lives for `the good of the nation.’ Around the world, this is a familiar tune, the song women as silver or diamond, and the women of Cambodia reject it, as they have for decades.

At one of the intersections of land rights, workers’ rights, and women’s rights stands Mu Sochua.

As government forces attacked women garment workers, over the weekend, Mu Sochua, an opposition Member of Parliament, explained and contextualized. She explained that the workers’ demonstration were about a living wage and about democratic governance. She explained that, for the first time, all the trade unions had joined together and had joined together with the Cambodia National Rescue Party. When the State fired its AK47s, it took aim at both labor and democracy, and the heart of those movements, this weekend as so often before, is women workers, organizers, and advocates.

According to Mu Sochua, “The workers are now hiding. They’re living in fear. Do you want to wear clothes made by people who live in fear? With the wages they get today, they can’t even get three nutritious meals in a day. … Does the international community want to continue to support this kind of dictatorship … and support international buyers who make billions while our workers are deprived of basic rights?”

Mu Sochua has been posing the question, and pushing the crisis, of human rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, democracy in Cambodia for a long time. Sochua has been targeted by the State and has kept on keeping on. She led the struggle against the hyper-exploitation and abuse of Cambodian women and girls working as domestic workers in Malaysia. She connected the development logic of landgrabbing within Cambodia to the export of women workers by Cambodia. Sochua founded Khemera, the first women’s rights organization and the “first indigenous NGO” in modern Cambodia. She has faced imprisonment and worse, and much of this while a sitting Member of Parliament.

Throughout, Mu Sochua’s message has been clear. Democracy matters. Women matter. Justice matters. Cambodia matters. The garment factories of Cambodia have been reaping mass profits while cutting workers’, women workers’, salaries. The State has been claiming democracy while ignoring the will of the people, in development projects for the rich, in industrial production, in national elections. Do you want to support dictatorship, political, economic, and `developmental’? In Cambodia, the women are saying, “No!”

 

(Photo Credit: Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

Cambodia is not Bangladesh, and Asia is not a country!

A week ago, thousands of mostly women garment workers in Cambodia blocked a national highway for a half hour. This week, about 3000 mostly women garment workers at the same factory, a factory that produces clothes for Nike, again sat down in protest. This time they were met with stun batons. Over 20 women were hurt, and so the international press showed up.

To their credit, the international press did note that the workers were “mostly female”. But then, the articles would veer into a curious geography: “A series of deadly incidents at factories in Bangladesh, including the collapse of a building last month that killed more than 1,000 people, has focused global attention on safety in factories in Asia makes goods for Western companies.”

Cambodia is not Bangladesh, and Asia is not a country.

From 1974 to the end of 2004, the global garment industry was ruled by the Multi Fibre Arrangement, or MFA, which was designed “to protect” so-called developed countries from the over-productive barbarous hordes of the emerging so-called developing countries. The MFA was basically a global quota system. In January 2005, all that came to an end, and the global garment industry was relocated under the rules of the WTO and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT. What happened next? Just what you expected: “The result of the end of the Multi-fibre Arrangement was a dramatic redistribution of the allocation of global apparel production. For example, in 2000 China contributed to 24.8 percent of world apparel exports, Cambodia’s share was 0.6 percent, and Mexico’s was 4.6 percent. In 2008, the Chinese market share of world apparel exports increased by 50 percent, as compared to 2004, and it constituted 38.8 percent of the global apparel trade. The Cambodian market share doubled over the same time period and accounted for 1.2 percent of world apparel exports. However, the Mexican share declined threefold in that period, and in 2008 it constituted only 1.4 percent of world apparel exports.”

There were no real surprises in the new world order. Competition among exporting countries drove prices down. Those who were prepared for the change, such as China and Cambodia, saw their national fortunes improve. That doesn’t mean the lot or lives of workers improved, but the national economies grew.

Everyone involved knew that the super majority of garment workers are women. Every study and every theoretical model stated that both in the short term and in the long term putting garment production under the WTO and GATT would be bad for women workers. But the national economies, and the free market, had to grow. The women workers would just have to deal with the price they must pay for everyone else’s success and justice.

In Cambodia, apparel exports account for more than two-thirds of total manufacturing exports, and garment workers make up about a third of the industrial work force. More than 80% of garment workers in Cambodia are women. Post-MFA changes meant that women’s salaries, short term, would decline, and, long term, that the wage gap between women and men would increase. The growing wage gap is part of the program for the future, and part and parcel of `development.’

So, this sounds like Bangladesh, but it’s not.

Between 1999 and 2004, the United States and Cambodia had a deal. If Cambodia demonstrated improved factory working conditions, it could send more to the US markets. Cambodia sends almost all of its exports to the US and Europe, and so this was a big deal. The ILO monitored the conditions through something called Better Factories Cambodia, or BFC. BFC increased individual factories’ US export quotas. It also engaged in capacity building with State, labor and management stakeholders. Cambodia established an Arbitration Council to deal with labor disputes. Many workers’ health and safety conditions improved. Of course problems remained, such as involuntary overtime and lack of childcare facilities, but a growing labor movement addressed them. Along with two decades of industrial garment industry hyper-expansion, Cambodia witnessed the emergence of hundreds of unions, of thousands of organized and wildcat actions, of an increasingly entitled and powerful women workers’ movement.

Women garment workers in Cambodia and in Bangladesh pay a heavy price for the global garment industry. But then … women workers everywhere pay a heavy price for economic growth as for economic decline. For that reason, it’s important to locate the story of the Cambodian women workers more accurately. They are industrial women workers, and they are struggling for exactly the same things that industrial women workers in the Europe and in the United States are struggling for: better pay, better working conditions, dignity, respect, autonomy, power.

A month ago, Better Factories Cambodia released its annual report. The number one issue is fire safety. In the past year there has been “a large drop in compliance.” On the factory floor, the owners are cutting corners and endangering women workers’ health, well-being, and lives. In the national context, the owners are cutting women’s salaries, “because of the economic downturn”, and are widening the wage gap between women and men. Just like in the United States.

 

(Photo Credit: CNN)