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 behaviour," 39 civil society groups said in a statement.
"For women's rights in the workplace to be realised, it is paramount that childcare 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 U.N. commitments to end violence and discrimination against women.
The Women's Affairs Ministry has been criticised for failing to stand up for women in a country where the U.N. 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 criticised 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.
"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.
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 U.N. 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.
After a draft law criminalising 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.