Just a day after celebrating Women’s Rights Day, a mother and also a police officer, Sithong Sokha, was reprimanded for posting a picture of herself breastfeeding her baby in a police uniform on her personal Facebook account. She was asked by her supervisor to write an apology letter, promising not to repeat the same mistake, or otherwise she’d be accountable for her actions before the law. The police department claimed that breastfeeding was inappropriate, damaging the reputation of the police unit and undermining the value of Cambodian women. As an organisation working for gender equality, we were shocked and saddened to see the image of Sithong Sokha in the meeting room with other three policemen, being disciplined for feeding her baby during working hours.
Since the incident went viral and drew sharp reactions from the public and civil society, Sokha’s supervisor once again defended himself, this time accusing her of failing to ask permission before posting her breastfeeding picture on social media. Despite this sudden pivot, we feel that Sokha’s treatment illustrates direct discrimination against women and indeed a human rights violation. This is because breastfeeding is a part of women’s rights, as it is an expression of their bodily autonomy. Women have the right to decide over their body with free from fear, pressures and discrimination, including when and where to breastfeed. There is no shame for breastfeeding. By raising the supposed damage to the reputation of the police unit and the value of Cambodian women to discipline a mother who breastfeeds her baby, her employers have demonstrated a clear lack of understanding of women’s human rights and labour rights.
Further to that, breastfeeding is the most natural and healthy way to improve nutritional outcomes for babies. According to the Ministry of Health’s National Guidelines for Infant and Young Child Feeding, infants shall ideally be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth and development and reduce infant morbidity. In addition, breastfeeding has long formed part of Khmer culture where women normally breastfeed their baby whenever and wherever is needed. In Cambodian society, especially in rural areas, women breastfeed their baby during gatherings or meetings with their family, friends or neighbors freely as long as the baby needs food or is hungry.
The police department’s actions were thankfully followed by criticism from the public and civil society, which in turn led some relevant government agencies to voice their support for Sokha and all breastfeeding mothers. While this included the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the last paragraph of their statement also suggested that breastfeeding is seen by some people as affecting the values and the dignity of Khmer women, and that breastfeeding mothers should have pieces of cloth to cover up when breastfeeding their baby in public. Despite our disappointment in relation to this part of MoWA’s statement, we welcome the power of public voices and engagement which made government actors respond quickly and openly to the issue of discrimination against women. Sithong Sokha has since received a basket of fruit and some budget as compensation from her department.
Considering all of these factors, we hope that this case will prevent such discrimination at the workplace in future, not only for women police officers, but for women in all sectors and levels across the country. There is nothing to hide: Feeding a baby is natural, healthy and an important part of Khmer culture.