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The Ebb and Flow of Covid-19: A Pause to Rights Advocacy

On June 16th, 2021, a Women’s Rights Forum was organized in Trapeang Tav Chas village of Anlong Veng district. The forum was principally intended to engage women and some men in a discussion on the history of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979), to reflect upon the impacts of Covid-19 on their families, and, in particular, also to bring to attention women’s rights. Present inside a gathering hall in the village were are 6 women and 2 men who were living through both the Khmer Rouge’s (KR) regime and the civil war that lasted until 1998.

Anlong Veng district has confirmed Covid-19 contraction a few days before the forum was held. The regulations from the Anlong Veng district administration to contain it quickly disseminated to all 68 villages through their telegram group members and mobile walkie-talkies of village chiefs and village security guards. They all made every effort to safeguard against the spread of the virus by checking in with and informing any of participants in each village.

Considering these circumstances, Anlong Veng Peace Center of DC-Cam cooperated with the local authorities and only invited 8 villagers to mitigate the risks of transmission by adhering to Cambodia’s Ministry of Health instructions to wear face masks, to keep safe distance guide lines of at least 1.5 meters between individuals and to sanitize our hands regularly. All were able to follow these regulations as the Anlong Veng Peace Center brought  a box of face masks, alcoholic hand sanitizer and food for each participant.

The discussion started with the Covid-19 pandemic in their communities. They have grave concern over the infectious virus as they felt that it close to their relatively remote villages, and others like theirs. Furthermore, it has come closer to them as Hing Horn, 60 years old, said in the forum that it has reached the thatch bushes in their village. He implied that Covid-19 is now able to penetrate every spectrum and corner of his village. He says while most villagers have begun to take an extra precaution again the virus, some kept traveling for various purposes which worried all of the other villagers.

When it came to their living conditions, five of the attendees reiterated that they faced similar challenges and found were struggling with their families’ low or zero income because of unemployment. Saing Samet, 52 years old, said in the forum that: “I am a breadwinner, but I could not make any earnings owing to travel restriction from province to province and, in some places, lockdown, which was the case of Phnom Penh.” Similar to Samet, Un Sreng, 55 years old, confessed that his family is in crisis because his income sharply dropped. While both men shared these views with female attendees, Sok Nge, 61 years old, wished to express her thought on this issue as well. She said she had nothing to hide, but admitted that her family is living under the poverty line. Holding a “poor-status card,” she lives on 25 US dollars per month to buy some groceries and medicine. Sitting next to Nge, Sok Noeun, 67 years old, added that what is worse for her family is “debt.” However, both Noeun and Nge agreed that as they both have chronic illnesses, they were more concerned of the health of their children and grandchildren than that of theirs.

Despite these diverse views, the attendees tended to link these experiences to the period of time in which they lived under KR rule. While many felt that the KR history helped them learn to cope with their current immense challenges, they viewed Covid-19 as a preventable calamity. Say Kunthea, 67 years old, slightly disagreed that Covid-19 was worse or equal to than the KR period. Her opinion was also shared by Samet, Sreng, Nge and Noeun. They spoke in the same vein that the KR issued a dictatorial rule to make its citizens, including themselves and their families overworked and put everyone at high risk of death and of being executed. During the KR regime, there was also widespread hunger and their freedoms were completely stripped. Nge continued that during the war, people could still travel although they always faced the increased changes of ambushes and attacks. Kunthea’s view differed insofar as he felt “much worse [today] than [under] the KR regime as Covid-19 can spread very quickly and claim the lives of so many if one or two people in a village have any contact with those contracting it.” Nevertheless, all agreed that we can overcome the contagious virus but that our freedom of movement and assembly are restricted to contain the spread.

The forum then jumped into the topic of discrimination and extremism that has arisen from Covid-19. They did not deny this but said it’s a necessary measure. Yim Tauh, 68 years old, and Chup Ry, 57 years old, said they would not discriminate against anyone as they took the liberty of protecting themselves from possible contraction of the virus. Instead, they feared being discriminated against if they, themselves, contracted the virus.  None of their relatives would be allowed to get close to them. The attendees then further went into deeper discussion on the term “extremism.” But all seemed to disagree that the virus could lead us to further extremism. Any individual’s actions are undeniably unpredictable.

Having devoted a large chunk of time in the forum to Covid-19, the attendees then turned to the women’s rights. They raised some impregnable challenges to any sort of advocacy and assembly to uphold their rights in socio-political aspects. This gave led to a period of silence and reflection on the issue.

At the end of the forum, all the attendees said this public gathering was significant and valuable to help retain the momentum of engaging women in discussion on KR history and also provided insight into Covid-19’s depth and impact on historical narratives and socio-political status as well.

PHOTO LINK https://photos.app.goo.gl/4Lu3S22VjZ1o1Qbw8

DONOR: United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

TEAM: Mek Ven, Ly Sok-Kheang, Sout Vechet, & Hean Pisey

REPORTLy Sok-Kheang