Designer Diane von Fürstenberg will today present the Vital Voices leadership in public life award to Tep Vanny, a self-branded housewife who has become a guiding light in Cambodia’s battle against forced evictions. Carried out in the name of progress, forced evictions now rank as one of the world’s most serious human rights abuses. Amnesty International defines them as “when people are forced out of their homes and off their land against their will, with little notice or none at all, often with the threat or use of violence”. And in Cambodia, a country devastated by the pursuit of profit, it is housewives who have come out fighting against them.
In 2007, the Chinese-backed private development company Shukaku Inc was granted a 99-year lease to build on and around Boeung Kak lake in central Phnom Penh. The company went on to fill the lake with sand, destroying approximately 10,000 residents’ homes and submerging their lives with it. Even more homes are under threat. One community member told me the government was “trying to eradicate poverty by displacing the poor from the city where they can hide our poverty. This is what they mean by poverty eradication. They don’t care how we will survive, if we live or die. They ruin our homes, our incomes, we are left with absolutely nothing.”
Western feminists should not lose sight of the fact that in many countries around the world, women’s role as wife and mother remains central to their family and societal status. When homes are threatened with destruction, it is women who are disproportionately affected. While women are commonly framed as defenceless “soft targets” in forced evictions, Vanny and her fellow housewives complicate this assumption.