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Viral Breastfeeding Photo Causes Controversy in Cambodia, Fuels Calls for Action on Women's Rights

By Matt Blomberg

PHNOM PENH, March 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Cambodia must protect the rights of working mothers to meet its international commitments, campaigners said, after a policewoman was publicly shamed by superiors for a social media photo of her breastfeeding while on duty.

The photo of Sithong Sokha went viral this week after superiors forced her to make a public apology for sullying the reputations of Cambodian women and the police force, sparking mass debate in the conservative Southeast Asian country.

"It is disturbing that the officer was originally encouraged to apologize for offending the dignity of her office and women and made to sign a contract agreeing to discontinue her behavior," 39 civil society groups said in a statement. "For women's rights in the workplace to be realized, it is paramount that child care equipment and facilities, and breastfeeding breaks with pay, are made easily available to all working mothers."

Cambodian authorities have come under increased scrutiny since 2020 for policing how women dress and behave, with campaigners calling out multiple violations of UN commitments to end violence and discrimination against women.

The Women's Affairs Ministry has been criticized for failing to stand up for women in a country where the UN said entrenched social norms contribute to gender-based violence and the disadvantaged position of women across society.

But the Women's Affairs Ministry did this week write an open letter supporting Sokha — although it was criticized for the closing paragraph, which said breastfeeding in public could be seen as "affecting the values and the dignity of Khmer women."

On Wednesday this week, a senior Interior Ministry official also wrote an open letter, saying she was "extremely dismayed" at the treatment of Sokha, in a rare public show of discord between authorities under Cambodia's one-party government.

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"She did not express any sexiness in the photograph in order to attract attention like some online vendors," said Chou Bun Eng, a secretary of state.

"You should compliment and encourage (her) and seek ways to ensure that policewomen like her have adequate opportunities to look after their children," she wrote to the police chief who took action against the officer.

After the public outcry against the treatment of Sokha and divided official response, the police backtracked and said the mother was reprimanded only for posting photos of herself while doing police work.

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Ros Sopheap, head of Gender and Development for Cambodia, a charity, said Cambodian law allows mothers one hour per day for up to a year to breastfeed children, but without strict enforcement the rule is often ignored by bosses.

"Either they know and they don't care, or they know and they violate," she said, calling for the government to ensure it follows up on its UN commitments.

Over the past year campaigners have decried a series of measures the government said were necessary to protect Cambodian culture and the dignity of Cambodian women.

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After a draft law criminalizing outfits deemed immodest was leaked in July, Cambodian women posted photos of themselves wearing swimsuits to social media in protest.

In February, a woman was jailed on pornography charges after ignoring warnings to wear more conservative outfits while selling clothes via livestreamed video.

"We need people in leadership who are actually gender sensitive," said Sopheap.

(Reporting by Matt Blomberg, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)