JASS Blog

by JASS on April 30, 2015 at 7:39 pm

Written by Sreymom Loem

I have learned from my experience and I am going to encourage more women garment workers to stand up for our rights and power. Our rights have been gravely abused; women workers’ voices need to be heard. Women workers have always demanded for a common solution to the plight of garment workers. Laws should not remain only in paper; these must be respected by all Cambodian people – even the rich and the elite.


Rural Women as Factory Workers in the City

When we imagine the picture of the city, we have an exciting image in mind. But for me, that was not the case. Right from the start, I never had this feeling because I was determined to fulfill my mission – to earn money to help my family.  And like all Cambodian women from the rural areas, I am determined to earn for my family. While there were a thousand reasons why I decided to leave my hometown to work in Phnom Penh City, poverty was the main reason.

My family can't grow rice in the field because we don't have an irrigation system. Instead, we grew vegetables, but we didn’t make much profit from them because they sold for less at the market. In turn, basic goods that we needed were very expensive that my family couldn't afford them. During that time, my mother also got very ill.  That was when I decided to give up school after I passed secondary school in 2003.

So in 2006, I started to work as a factory worker in Phnom Penh City. I was just a teenager then; I was 17 years old. It was my first time to move to Phnom Penh to find a job. At that time, garment factories in Cambodia were growing—even women and girls from other provinces in Cambodia were migrating too. Most of the community people mistakenly believed that their children will have a good-paying job, maintain a good life, and build a good future. They all believed that the Cambodian government is starting to develop the country by constructing tall buildings and expensive bridges. 

And so did I. I believed it so much that when I got a job in a garment factory, I was filled with new hope that I would be able to save my earnings—US$61 a month—for my family back home.

Women Workers’ Daily Routine

At first, I found everything in the factory exciting. Everything was new—the environment and the machines. We all focused on our work and did not speak to each other while working.  

When I received my first salary – it added to my thrill! I couldn’t sleep for many nights after I got it. I saved a big percentage of my income for my family. I also bought new clothes for myself.  It was a very fresh experience for me!

My daily routine consisted of waking up very early in the morning – around 5:30 am because I had to be in a group (group transportation) to get to the workplace.  I was so afraid of being left behind. I was so afraid of being late too! If we were late, even by a minute, management would deduct 1,000 Cambodian riels (equivalent to 25c US$).   Even garment workers who often go to the toilet would have salary deductions too.

After a while, I began to realize how bad these working conditions were, and I wasn’t the only one. Other women felt it too. Having low wages, working under miserable work conditions, forced to work long hours, having heavy workload, lack of occupational safety in the factory, lack of fresh air, having dirty toilets, difficulty in making friends with each other or caring about each other, feeling alone, experiencing different kinds of abuse – these are the daily grind of a garment worker in Phnom Penh.

My living situation wasn’t any better. I lived with four to five people in a tiny room where we washed, ate and slept. I never took a bath before going to bed because I worried about my safety. Our male neighbors would always watch women take a bath because the dormitories did not have secure bathroom walls. 

Some women factory workers I know also experienced abuse from male workers in our workplace and in our house. I just kept silent; back then I was not brave to tell anyone so I continued living and working without any solution in sight.

Our employers refused to understand the challenges we were facing. They forced us to work more. Some of our friends contracted work-related diseases such as typhoid and heavy cough, but the management did not care at all.  

When auditors and inspectors would come, the workers were provided with masks, facility, clean toilet but one or two days after inspection, they would stop distributing the masks. Also, the manager tried to lobby workers to give good speeches in support of the factory when they were interviewed by the auditor. They forced them to give good comments about the work conditions in the factory. If workers refused, they would threaten them.

Breaking Out of the Factory 

I heard about the organization, Women Agenda for Change (WAC) – which is now changed to Workers’ Information Center (WIC). I know WIC from my friends who learned about workers’ rights through them.

My friends introduced them to me. Through WIC, I found out about different views from outside of the factory.  So, I started to change myself. I joined with them. They gave me the space to talk and share about the challenges that I faced. I learned a lot from them. They let me know about our rights, labor laws, what workers can do, why we are together, how and why we have to challenge the company.

It was WIC who tapped my leadership potential and passion. Every time I attended the WIC dialogues – I did not feel alone. I felt I had many friends whom I can share my experiences with, whom I can talk to – warm and closely. In 2010, I stopped working for factories and went back to high school to complete my education because the living and working conditions only got worse, as did the wage.  After a series of trainings, I volunteered with WIC. I realized that I like this volunteer work and it fit me.

Uniting with Women Workers

I have been working with WIC for five years now. As a facilitator – I am responsible for organizing garment workers’ communities, providing training and information, and providing health care awareness, coaching, and discussion. I use popular education tools (some of which I learned from JASS) that empower women workers to speak out, break the culture of silence, share information, and discuss Cambodian laws – especially labor laws.

I have chosen to strengthen my power and leadership skills by learning through my own experiences, by working with other non-government organizations (NGO’s), workers’ associations, different groups like cross-sector groups, United Sisterhood, and young women’s groups in Cambodia such as Cambodian Young Women’s Empowerment Network (CYWEN), and JASS. I see a lot of women who have similar passion and agenda. It is amazing how we can learn to find common ways to build new and dynamic movements.

About the Author

Sreymom Loem joined a JASS workshop in Cambodia in 2014. She was one of the facilitators of JASS’ regional campaign One Day, One Voice (ODOV) in 2014. 

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by on April 30, 2015 at 11:30 am

Sister ko mabva matakura masofa acho mukati rega ndifambe ndakasenga (Sister, your body looks like you carried the couch with you into town).
Hure (prostitute)
Eish mukoma vari kunakirwa kumba uku (Eish, your husband/boyfriend should be having the time of his life, sexually, with you)

Those are just some of the things I hear when I am on the street. That’s what we all hear as women living in urban centres in Zimbabwe. When we take taxis to work, or when we cross the road, or when we stop at a traffic light to buy some air time for our mobile phones. Some people have it upside down; they call this kind of unwanted commentary "compliments." But they’re not. It’s street harassment and we are all familiar with it in some way.

In September 2014, a young woman at Harare's main bus terminal was sitting in a minibus taxi when she was attacked. She was dragged out of the minibus and brutally assaulted by a group of about forty people, mostly male touts (bus conductors). They beat her and stripped off her clothes while hurling abuse at her for the “crime” of “improper” dress. Some passers-by tried to intervene on her behalf. But a lot more people joined in with the angry mob—all outraged at the fact that this woman had had the gall to wear “inappropriate” clothing. And there I was thinking that wearing inappropriate clothes meant putting on a summer dress in the middle of winter, or donning a pair of shorts to a board meeting.

Even though the attack drew national attention, most of us figured that the response would be the same lacklustre one we’ve come to expect from cases of street harassment and assault. After all, in Zimbabwe, a sex offender can get off by paying a fine as little as $5.

What’s really interesting is how this case and another attack in December captured the imagination of those using social media—many of whom supported the attackers and wrote messages that reinforced the idea that women can and should be told what to wear; and if not, face violent consequences. But this is also how two men implicated in the crime were caught and arrested, after video footage of the assault went viral online.

In late March 2015, in an unprecedented court decision, a Harare magistrate sentenced the two men to twelve months in jail with the possibility of a four-month suspension on condition of good behaviour. I was shocked—the judiciary was actually taking a stand against this violent behaviour and sentencing those involved? The punishment should have been stiffer but it’s a good first step for Zimbabwean women. I felt like my experiences of harassment were being recognised; like I was not crazy to think this is not okay.

This verdict is good news for activists who face even higher levels of harassment and violence in public spaces. “Our laws have been formed in such a way that women can be protected in private spaces, for example the Domestic Violence Act,” says Winnet Shamuyarira of Katswe Sistahood. “But a lot of violence is taking place in public spaces so this is a landmark ruling in the sense that it sends a message to would-be violators of women that you can’t just take a woman and think that it’s a piece of flesh that you can just decide to abuse, harass and do as you wish.”

Zimbabwean feminists, led by Katswe Sistahood, took to the streets in protest of the September incident and other such violent acts.  Their actions sparked a national conversation, shining a spotlight on the violence that women experience every day, whether in the streets or the home such that when the attack in December took place, people were enraged by the continuous wars perpetrated on women’s bodies in public spaces. 

But is it good enough? Just days after the historic sentencing, 51 year-old Lessie Tenai was beaten to death by her partner and his two friends. Why? Because she was “wearing a miniskirt that was too short for her age.” This vicious attack reinforces the truth that the struggle for ownership of our own bodies goes beyond age or location—Tenai came from the rural village of Madzyiya.

The fact is, no matter who you are, where you’re from—urban or rural, young or old on the age spectrum—you’re in trouble. Katswe Sistahood activist, Mary, puts it like this: “The word ‘hure’ (Shona: for whore) is used to refer to any woman no matter what you do. If you’re buying fish, you’re a hure. If you’re going to the market, you’re a hure. If you’re doing anything at all—you’re a hure. No matter what we wear. So just say, ‘Yes, I am a hure. Now what are you going to do about it?’”

Even Vice President, formerly Minister of Defence, Emerson Mnangagwa, a man known for his less-than-progressive politics condemned the attacks on women, or at least tried to:

Some of us … who were there around 1918 [know that] women used to wear nhembe (women’s traditional clothing) but no one protested. The men would put on madhumbu and no one protested. Then came the whites with clothes that covered the whole body. If a woman parades herself in a miniskirt, leave her. That is what she wants. We went to war for freedom, fighting so that all people would be free. So the new Constitution speaks of freedom of choice and freedom of expression. What matters are her morals, not dressing, it is her right.

Aside from the moral policing—it shouldn’t matter whether a woman is “good” or “morally acceptable” at all and as we know from the statistics, it doesn’t—the substance of his comment hits upon some key truths.

Thirty years ago, Zimbabwean women took to the streets to fight for the right to be considered legal adults. The reason I’m allowed to drive a car or own a house is because of the battle those women who came before me fought. They were also called names, they were mocked and harassed but they won. Now, in 2015, Zimbabwean women still have a long way to go to actually enjoy all the rights of a legal adult—and that includes having the choice to wear whatever the hell we want.

Photo: An image from the MyDressMyChoice march in Kenya, Al Jazeera

This blog post was co-written with Winnet Shamuyarira of Katswe Sistahood.

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by on March 2, 2015 at 1:38 am

JASS Southern Africa (JASS SNA) sat down with two activists who are saying “No!” to Big Coal: Nomonde Nkosi, a young feminist activist from rural Mpumalanga, South Africa and Betty Abah a poet-environmentalist from Nigeria. Despite the distance that separates them and their contexts, their powerful stories illustrate women’s courage, leadership and organization in standing up to multinational extractive corporations—natural gas, oil, coal and precious minerals—backed by governments and devastating women’s lives and the environment.

Betty and Nomonde are a part of—WoMin—a JASS ally and growing solidarity network of organizations and activists who focus on women’s leadership and voices united in the fight against environmental injustice and the violence inflicted by extractive industries across the African continent.

Betty Abah

Betty Abah is a journalist, poet, human rights activist and environmental justice advocate, and, more recently, founder of the Centre for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection (Cee-Hope Nigeria). Betty hadBetty Abah reading her poetry at WoMin regional meeting been working as a journalist for nearly a decade when she switched her career to campaign for environmental justice and, in particular, for the rights of women at the frontlines of struggles against multinational natural gas and oil companies in the Niger Delta.

What inspired you to get involved with extractives and environmental justice?

I read an article that drew my attention to the situation of women and their communities in the Niger Delta and the impact of the oil and gas extraction and other mining activities on their daily lives. There had been a gas flare—incredibly dangerous—and the writer described how they could feel the heat from the gas flare when they were standing in the middle of this village. It was so hot that they couldn’t stand there. They wondered how people were even able to stay in that community. But where else were these people supposed to go? To them it was normal to live with that heat. Every day, they were forced to breathe in poisonous gasses and it caused side effects that research doesn’t even tell just how extensive—ovarian cancer, respiratory problems, children born with deformities. And nobody cared! The government wouldn’t stop it because where there is oil it means money—90% of the country's revenue is from oil. The companies were not bothered by environmental laws, so they just left people to fend for themselves. It was about money and profit, the people don’t matter. So I joined the Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria as a Gender Focal Person because I thought that I should be in the middle of the struggle, I shouldn’t just write about it—I wanted to be part of it.

“[I saw]  that there was—at community levels—a sort of injustice or marginalization as women were not consulted or carried along in matters of general concern, and their voices were mostly stifled in the push for justice. While everyone grapples with pollution of the environment, women in most of Niger Delta communities and indeed, in communities ‘cursed’ by the presence of mineral resources, have had to deal with extreme forms of poverty in what we call the feminization of poverty. The typical woman also has no claim to any land as dictated by patriarchy… so she is first at the mercy of the community and then that of the multinationals that are often involved in annexing communal land and resources. Tradition effectively ensures she can’t claim anything in instances of compensation for lost land and resources.” ~ A Word is Enough for the Wise, Betty Abah

What kind of work did you do with Friends of the Earth?

We worked in almost all the states of the Niger Delta, mobilizing women and sensitizing them to their rights. The highlight was a four-country project where we researched the gender impacts of the West African pipelines in Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Cameroon. This project was supported by Friends of the Earth International (Netherlands), Gender Action, Environmental Rights Action (Nigeria) and several affiliates in each country. The research revealed serious violations, including loss of livelihoods. Many women who ran fisheries lost their businesses because the rivers were so polluted and this meant water contamination that affected people’s health. Women did not have the opportunity to speak out on loss of land and property. The cost of these multinational extractive companies is huge for women. Many women were stripped of their lands without compensation.  In most cases, these women were farming on their husband’s or father’s lands so the property was not in their names. This meant that they would receive little to nothing of the compensation, which was already minimal. (Read: Broken Promises: Gender Impacts of the World Bank-Financed West African and Chad-Cameroon Pipelines). And what could they say or do? These are big companies like Chevron funded and backed by the World Bank and the African Development Bank.

That was one of the striking images in my heart. I decided to really work at it and plunge myself into it to fight for some form of justice for the people. It was (and still is) important for me that the voices and stories of these women be heard so that people can see the price of these industries on real people.

What does justice mean to you?

What does justice mean to me? There’s a small community in the Rivers State of the Niger Delta that has managed to stave off oil companies for about twenty years following the hanging of their kinsman writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa by the then Nigerian military junta in 1995, for demanding for environmental justice. And it has taken that amount of time for the community to recover from decades of extractivism that took place in their land and environment. Now, life has returned there. The trees and flowers are blooming, the water is drinkable, and people are living life. And so when we talk ‘justice’, it’s not just monetary compensation. It’s how we get to a time and place when people can live their lives fully and safely, take advantage of the resources in their community and their environment, and be conscious of their rights as human beings.

Nomonde Nkosi

Nomonde NkNomonde Nkosi at Womin Regional Meetingosi hails from a small mixed farming and mining town, primarily coal, called Carolina, which is in the Mpumalanga province. An activist since she could “walk”, Nomonde joined the Women from Mining Affected Communities United in Action (WAMUA) to fight for and with the women in her own community. Over the last year, she has worked with WAMUA to lead research to better understand women's experiences.

What are the burning issues for women?

At the end of the day, everything that’s happening affects women the most. When there is no water in the house, who must fetch it? The mother, the girls, the sisters.

If you drink water from the taps in Carolina, you will have a running stomach.  I’ve seen children develop skin rashes. Any clothing you wash with that water becomes discolored. Sometimes there is no water at all but the municipality doesn’t explain what happened to the water. But they will come running back to us in 2016—an election year—in order to get votes.

Mining is such a big industry in the whole province, so there is a lot of migrant workers. Often, women are the ones who are “left behind” to take care of the family and survive somehow.

Many families have lost their land to the mining companies. One woman told me, “this is what the ‘white people did’:  they came with some papers but [we had no one to help us understand the papers], so the white people told us to sign on those papers for ten years to allow them to mine and that we will own 40%.” To this day, no one in that community has seen any meaningful benefit.

What kind of work are you doing?

Together with WAMUA, I have tried to meet with councilors to challenge what is happening. The problem is in Caroline is that when you stand up and talk to the councilor or whoever, you become a threat to them. So instead, I have supported some of my comrades (friends and colleagues) to go instead. But being here in this space and hearing sisters from around Africa who are coming from countries where a woman doesn’t speak—and yet they stand up and fight is a lesson for me.

What is your dream or your vision?

My dream is that women should be more informed, and they should have the power to stand and hold each other’s hands so that if you fall, I fall with you—we fall together. If something happens to you, then I’ll be there. If I fall, I know there’s someone behind me who’s going to catch me.

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