29 January 2018

Gendered Resistance to Large-scale Land Acquisitions in Cambodia

Millenniumsdorf Kanat Toch Millennium Village Kanat Toch

A presentation by Saba Joshi, The Graduate Institute, Geneva

Report by Vanessa Gauthier Vela, The Graduate Institute, Geneva

In the context of the Gender Seminar Series, Saba Joshi presented a part of her PhD research on land conflict in Cambodia. Using data collected through semi-structured interviews and field research with several rural communities affected by land conflicts and with Cambodian NGOs, she is studying the emergence of women-led grassroots movements and gendered political identities in Cambodia. In her presentation, she discussed cases drawn from villages in two rural provinces experiencing displacement, loss, and contestation, due to conflicts over land leased to private companies with close ties to the government, or by individuals inside the government.

Land conflicts in Cambodia are occurring in a context of the country’s complicated political transition, from a socialist state to a capitalist economy. The accumulation of political power and the reintroduction of private property laws, with the government taking the decision to cede large parts of inhabited and agricultural land to private entities, are clashing with customary practices, within the context of legal pluralism. This context exacerbates social tensions, leading to rural women's activism over lost access and control over their households’ farming land. Joshi presented data gathered by civil society organisations, which have mapped land conflicts in Cambodia and also explained the dynamics of dispute settlement mechanisms. Between 2000 and 2015, land conflicts affected 830 000 people and the UN Special rapporteur underlined the problematic implications of forced eviction and displacement. Commonly, affected communities use formal mechanisms such as petition and legal complaints, with the support of civil society in their campaigns.

The researcher explained that with 85% of land registered belonging fully or jointly to women, Cambodia appears to be an equitable country at first glance. However, gender gaps can be observed in the low numbers of women in formal politics – for  instance in commune and national elections, and in the incidents of violence against women – 21 percent of ever-partnered women have experienced IPV. Joshi also discussed the femininity of Cambodian women is in transition, wherein women are seen in relation to the preservation of Khmer “culture”, which is, in this narrative, threatened to disappear. At the same time, the social construction of the “modern” Cambodian women is also linked to the freedom to migrate.

Women have three main motivations for resistance: the will to be compensated for their dispossession (an individual concern, that is often manipulated by companies to undo solidarities in movements of protest), preoccupations over matters of family income and inheritance, and an understanding of their customary and historical rights faced with the loss of their homes and farming lands. Regarding their involvement in resistance, interviewed women emphasized that their opposition to the government is not linked to political ambitions and political parties. Their understanding of authority and power involves a lack of trust in the relation between the state and its citizens. The question of women on the front-lines of the struggle is a complex, gendered one. On one hand, women activists and NGOs argue that women are less confrontational, will experience less police brutality and that men do not have time to get involved because they have to work. But on the hand, home and land are viewed as feminised areas of contestation. In this respect women are seen as being more attached to the land, which justifies their activism. At the same time, despite the idea that they are less confrontational, women activists reported experiencing violence meted out by authorities at protests and their partners at home.

Joshi finished her presentation by discussing the existing correlation already seen by different NGOs between domestic violence and land conflicts. There is an existing tension in the involvement of married women in resistance movements which can lead to domestic violence and divorce, as well as women’s more affirmative behaviour with their husbands.

Joshi’s presentation on women in land resistance mobilisations is useful to understand the dynamics of gender. Underlining the role of women’s resistance in Cambodia, she help us to understand the role of gender as a political resource for mobilization and the renegotiation of gender norms made possible by resistance over land.

Research presented during this seminar has been conducted within the Gender Centre's research project Land Commercialisation, Gendered Agrarian Transformation, and the Right to Food (DEMETER).