Jhe night six Cambodian police officers dragged Prum Chantha’s teenage son out of their home for criticizing the government during a group discussion, she was so upset that her neighbors insisted on sleeping on her floor to watch over her.
Her husband was already one of more than 100 activists and politicians charged with treason or alleged incitement against Cambodia’s ruling party. Now Kak Sovannchhay, a 16-year-old autistic boy whose crime was to defend his father on Telegram, would join him in Prey Sar prison.
But within a week, Chantha returned to the ritual she had started a year earlier, marching through the streets of Phnom Penh with her petition.
“I can’t be weak. I have to defend myself,” Chantha says.
For two years, she led a group of women – sometimes dozens – to picket outside Phnom Penh courts and international embassies, facing arrests and violence as they demanded the release of their family members. .
Chantha’s son, arrested in June 2021, has returned home after five months in jail, but her husband is still awaiting trial in one of four mass trials against opposition leaders and supporters who many see as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s attempt to root out rampant dissent in his 37-year reign. Chantha’s group, a rare voice of defiance in Cambodia, is known as the “Friday Brides” for their weekly protests.
“Physically, they are putting their lives and bodies at risk,” says Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer and activist who is facing her own ongoing legal process for joining the protests.
“Here are 20 unarmed women, holding signs, wearing loved ones’ T-shirts, assaulted left and right.”
On a sweltering April morning, the women wore wide-brimmed hats and white t-shirts bearing pictures of their imprisoned family members as they walked down a busy road to sit on the grass in front the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh. On May 3, closing arguments are expected at a hearing for about 60 of the 130 activists prosecuted by the state since 2020.
The protests follow a familiar arc: they gather outside the City Court or the Royal Palace before delivering a petition to one of the many embassies.
“We are looking for democratic countries and signatories,” says Chantha. She has already met with representatives from the embassies of the United States, Indonesia, the United Kingdom and the EU.
When they debuted in June 2020, the Friday brides were very nervous, says Ouk Chanthy, a garment worker whose husband is serving a 44-month prison sentence. He was one of 20 people handed down sentences of up to 10 years in mid-March. “I didn’t know how advocacy works,” she says. “The first time I joined the protest, I was afraid that the authorities would threaten me.”
The police have shoved and hit women countless times, threatened them with arrest and violently chased them out of public spaces. They meditate together before each demonstration and shout constant words of encouragement.
On the day her husband was sentenced, two guards confronted Chanthy as she held up her photo and dragged it on the floor until her palm bled.
“I was scared,” she says, touching where she has a faint scar. “They threatened us, pushed us, pulled us, until all my fear disappeared.”
Mu Sochua, an opposition leader in exile, watched the women from afar as they grew from a group of strangers into an unshakeable network of mutual support. Their message also extended to broader themes of democracy and freedom of expression.
“It’s very clear that they have moved beyond fighting for themselves and their husbands – they have moved towards justice for all,” says Sochua. “Listening to their interviews, I hear that they don’t see themselves as victims, but as real actors, real leaders in bringing about change.”
The group bears more than physical scars: Chantha’s family members have blocked her on Facebook and cellphones to avoid being targeted by authorities by association. Many women struggle to find people who will employ them.
Chantha can afford to visit her husband once a week, squeezing her protests between trekking to prison, caring for her son and helping her niece sell clothes. But she has no intention of stopping.
“It is unacceptable that families are threatened and intimidated,” she said. “The authorities attack us, shoot us, beat us, arrest us and threaten us – yet we cannot even criticize them.
Sign up for Her Stage to hear directly from incredible women in the developing world on the issues that matter to them, delivered to your inbox every month: