If you had looked closely at last Friday’s land dispute protest in Koh Kong province, you might have noticed something unexpected: The vast majority of the roughly 170 protesters were women.
There is no dearth of men in Sre Ambel district’s Chi Kro Krom commune, where villagers accuse the Heng Huy Company of clearing their farmland, an accusation the firm denies.
Rather, more women are taking part in protests there because they are less likely than men to be arrested or beaten, according to villagers and rights workers.
“The majority of men in the village have been intimidated with the threat of arrest if they protest,” said Koerth Pav, one of the villagers who blocked National Road 48 for five hours on Friday.
Women had no option but to come out in the place of men, she said. “We have got no choice, which is why we decided to kneel on the ground to block the road and beg authorities to come and solve the matter for us.”
Ouch Leng, monitor for the human rights group Adhoc, said the “number of female land protesters has noticeably skyrocketed this year.”
“Very often male protesters have been severely beaten with wooden sticks, or are shocked with electric batons, and physically abused with strong kicks,” Mr Leng said. “Which is why women and small children, especially elderly people, actively appear in public to protest for rights on their land and houses.
“The authorities are not so violent in kicking or beating up female land protesters,” he added.
Although Mr Leng said Adhoc did not have figures on the gender breakdown of protesters across Cambodia, he said only 30 percent of the 146 people detained since 2008 in Adhoc-monitored land disputes were women.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for the human rights group Licadho, said his group has recorded 62 people detained since 2009 in land disputes. He said only four of those were women.
“There are two main reasons for the dramatic increase in women land protesters,” Mr Sam Ath said. “The first is because men are always the target of arrest, so those men go and hide out of fear of arrest or imprisonment.
“Secondly, men are playing an important role to earn income to support their families, so women have decided to dominate their husband’s work in demanding land for farm and living.”
A different reason was given by Ly Mom, a representative for residents at Boeng Kak lake, where some 4,000 families have faced eviction since 2007, when Phnom Penh City Hall granted Shukaku Inc a 99-year lease to the area.
Ms Mom said that there are more female protesters because Cambodian women are “better educated in this generation.”
“So we risk our life in the public to protest in order to ensure our legal rights for housing and land,” she said.
Officials said they treat male and female protesters the same way.
“It doesn’t matter if they were male or female protesters, it was wrong to block the road causing a long traffic jam,” Sre Ambel district governor Suon Seila said of Friday’s protest in Koh Kong province. “But we didn’t use competent forces to violently break the protest up, we used soft measures to compromise with those female land protesters.
“I encourage both male and female protesters to use legal procedures, such as writing a complaint to file with authorities,” Mr Seila added.
Phnom Penh municipal police chief Touch Naruth said he had seen no increase in the proportion of women at protests in the capital.
“It is based on the type of protest. Some have a larger number of female protesters, such as protests over market irregularities,” he said. “Some protests, particularly protests over land issues, the men are there in high numbers.”
“To use force to carry male or female protesters to put into cars is the last thing we do when protesters don’t listen to authorities,” he added.