Forced Eviction and Women in Phnom Penh


A review of “Every day is difficult for my body and my heart.” Forced Evictions in Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Women’s Narratives of Risk and Resilience, by Colleen McGinn.

Despite Cambodia’s prevalent gender inequalities, few dissertations have specifically addressed women’s mental health in Cambodia. At the intersections of gender, urban studies, and social work, Colleen McGinn’s doctoral research examines Phnom Penh women’s’ narratives of forced evictions and their aftermath.

The aim of her study, she tells us in Chapter 1, is to understand the psychosocial health effects of forced evictions on women in Phnom Penh, and the factors underscoring risk and resilience related to displacement. In her approach, mental health is better understood as psychosocial – as psychosocial health takes into consideration the embeddedness of mental distress and well-being in social ecology. The central theoretical framework of the dissertation is Stress and Coping Theory, conceived by psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman (Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. New York, NY: Springer, 1984) and later reworked by other theorists. Stress and Coping Theory posits that stress involves transactional relations between an individual and his or her environment and transpiring events. Hence, “emotional responses are mediated by such factors as commitments, beliefs, cognitive appraisals, relationships, resources, and problem-solving strategies” (p. 10). Stress and Coping Theory’s attention to both environmental and personal variables allows for facets of risk and resilience in stressful situations to be effectively pinpointed as it identifies both traits and circumstances that enable certain individuals to cope better than others.

Chapter 2 defines key terms and offers a review of the literature concerning forced evictions as a global problem and in Cambodia, and on mental health in Cambodia. Forced evictions in Phnom Penh have conventionally been studied from legal, urban planning, shelter, and human rights perspectives. By taking a bottom-up, sociocultural approach to a topic typically treated from more macrosocial standpoints, McGinn seeks to avoid the artificial distinctions between politics, economics, and socioculture – “an invention of classical liberalism subsequently imposed upon the world of knowledge” (Interview with Immanuel Wallerstein, Theory Talk#13) – and she succeeds in providing a more holistic view of forced eviction uncircumscribed by these three broad disciplinary categories.

In her literature review, McGinn makes important qualifications about squatters, the complexity of tenure claims, eviction impacts, and trauma in Cambodia to set the scene for her findings later on. Forced evictions are extreme measures governments take to “manage the physical space of a locale” (p. 23), and immunity from tenure insecurity depends on one’s social capital and position. International law and the Cambodian Constitution state that renters and owners alike have the right to tenure security and compensation if they are evicted, but this has not been the reality on the ground. The literature on eviction impacts often assumes across the board effects for the entire displaced population, but this is not the case in Phnom Penh where housing patterns are variegated, with pockets of slum areas and informal settlements located amidst better quality housing. Furthermore, as McGinn later tells us, “it is something of a myth that those who are displaced in Phnom Penh’s forced evictions are necessarily low-income squatters and slum-dwellers” (p. 92). NGO studies on evictions in Cambodia have largely focused on the most marginal evictees, and those who have the strongest legal claim to the land, but these two groups do not always overlap. With respect to the subjective experience of displacement, the psychosocial health of evictees has only recently become a target of investigation.

The final body of work McGinn delineates is the mental health literature on Cambodia. Earlier research on mental health in postconflict Cambodia focused on trauma, but these studies are now dated because more than 35 years have passed since the Pol Pot era. While genocidal trauma still haunts the nation, more recent malaises associated with neoliberal development’s upheavals have emerged. She follows with an overview of Khmer cultural syndromes and idioms of distress. These are situated within Cambodia’s particular history and cultural elaboration of suffering, as developed in the work of cultural psychiatrist Maurice Eisenbruch, social work professor Edwina Uehara’s phenomenological approach centering on the “eloquent chaos” of Khmer Rouge survivors’ fractured narratives of trauma, and sociologist Leakhena Nou’s determination of social and family networks of support as a salient component of Cambodian self-identity. In light of the Khmer Rouge’s violent splintering of family units during its regime of mass killings, starvation, indoctrination, and terror that blighted the country’s social fabric, “how social support is experienced, understood and nurtured among Khmers, and the processes by which it mediates people’s hardships has particular resonance and specificity” in Cambodia (p. 52). In terms of how adversity is culturally experienced, what stands out is the somaticization of distress, whereby psychosocial problems are expressed through bodily ailments; and the inadequacy of biomedical approaches focusing solely on physical cures for symptoms.

Chapter 3 covers McGinn’s methods and the rationale for her research design. Her choice of narrative analysis complements her theoretical framework of Stress and Coping. Both in turn lend themselves well to understanding resilience. Narratives are “sense-making tools” that allow “individuals [to] describe and give meaning to their experiences, choices and actions” (p. 60), suturing breaches between “body, self and world” (p. 75). Narration and resilience both demonstrate a “handle” on adversity, “and the act of formulating a coherent narrative can actually influence adaptive responses,” (Stuart T. Hauser et al. “Narrative in the study of resilience.” Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 61 (2006): 205-227, cited on p. 60) which contribute to resilience. Her focus on women was aimed at assessing the impacts of eviction on families, livelihood strategies, household composition, and interpersonal relationships because women have both income earning and domestic responsibilities. Their opinions and experiences are also politically underrepresented in the public sphere and in policy making. The chapter closes with the details of her thorough data collection, translation,  and coding procedures.

Chapter 4 delves into a typology of post-eviction trajectories based on in-depth interviews with 22 women who were displaced in the 2 years prior to being interviewed. McGinn emphasizes that while certain patterns along socioeconomic lines were evident, outcomes diverged considerably despite the fact that some of the women came from the same community and received similar compensation packages. Her typology breaks down into forms and levels of harm, defined as “physical or psychological injury or damage” (p. 76). Due to Cambodia’s endemic poverty, psychosocial well-being is inextricably tied to economic survival. Evictees whose incomes were connected to their former neighborhood, or the city center suffered high levels of livelihood harm. Those who suffered grave asset harm were generally of a higher socioeconomic status, as they were severely under-compensated even though they had sufficient resources to stay afloat financially post-eviction. Successful family entrepreneurs who operated their businesses from home or nearby suffered high levels of both asset and livelihood harm. Lastly, those who experienced the eviction’s impact as neutral and even positive form a heterogeneous group whose stories, unlike those behind the other trajectories, are dissimilar. McGinn vividly illustrates the various eviction outcomes with excerpts from the women’s own narratives. Particularly poignant are the sentiments of one of the older women, who was devastated by the injustice of being evicted anew, first when the Khmer Rouge evacuated the country’s entire urban population in 1975, and once again more than thirty years later after having rebuilt her life by working and saving hard to buy a new home in Phnom Penh.

One of McGinn’s most significant findings is that the peri-urban areas to which evictees are resettled are simply unable to support the displaced families’ informal sector livelihoods. This is because other families in the area are similarly disenfranchised and barely able to pay for any goods or services. This pushed many lower income families over the brink into monetary crises. On top of any asset losses sustained from poor compensations, they had spent substantial amounts of their savings relocating and refurbishing the substandard accommodation they had been offered by the land developers, only to find themselves unable to earn a living at their new residence. This came wholly unexpected. Property prices in the city center have skyrocketed in recent years and the very reason behind the evictions destroys too their livelihoods in the city because they simply cannot afford to rent a new home in the vicinity.

In the penultimate chapter, McGinn returns to Stress and Coping theory to take stock of the varying psychosocial effects of forced eviction on displaced women and to evaluate how they dealt with and made sense of their circumstances. Stress manifested itself in somatic afflictions and “symptoms that could be clustered into culture-bound anxiety and depression syndromes, particularly ‘thinking too much’ and ‘brain nerves’” (p. 163). This is governed to some degree by socioeconomic status, for women with more resources tended to have a more pro-active coping style rather than a passive one, which is more prevalent among the poorest. For the extremely poor, the eviction did not feature as a singular catastrophic event but was one of many grueling difficulties that punctuated their lives. They tended to report feelings of despondency and resignation. On the other hand, those who suffered only asset harm experienced the eviction as a terrible event in and of itself, one that provoked much anxiety and anger. Apart from dispersing family units, rupturing location-based social support networks – “ties to others that encompass both practical and emotional benefits” (p. 141) – evictions also leave those in the greatest need cut off from kin when they become too much of a burden.

The final chapter provides public policy and social work recommendations addressing the issues raised in the women’s narratives. She advocates for a policy reorientation that prioritizes post-eviction livelihood capacities, rather than adequate housing per se. While the abysmal conditions of the relocation grounds need to be addressed, McGinn’s results show that livelihood capacity is the most important factor in positive post-eviction outcomes. This calls for “compensation packages [to] award homeowners full current market value for their properties (thus enabling them to purchase new homes within the city) and for broad urban planning measures to protect and encourage affordable rental housing districts within the city” (p. 174). Free or subsidized public transport should be available for relocated communities so that residents may commute to work in the city where they can get business. Phnom Penh is not the safest city for women, and this has implications for women’s mobility and livelihood opportunities if they live long distances away from where work can be found. New suburbs on the outskirts of the capital should also develop as mixed-income neighborhoods. The diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and eviction experiences of displaced families also need to be taken into account in devising more specialized mitigation strategies. A key conceptual recommendation in line with these suggestions is that the Disaster Risk Reduction approach can be adapted for social work practice related to forced evictions in Cambodia.

In sum, this dissertation richly and very cogently addresses an urgent social issue resulting from the spate of land grabs that have taken place in the country over the past ten to fifteen years. By zooming in on her participants’ narrated experiences of the eviction process and day-to-day life afterwards, McGinn furnishes readers with an intimate, culturally sensitive account of the material and emotional effects of forced evictions on urban Cambodian women and their families, flagging the importance of place for livelihood capacity. This work will be of academic interest to scholars of contemporary Cambodia and any social scientist interested in a culturally contextualized analysis of dispossession as it is negotiated and recounted by women at ground level.

Mirabelle Yang
Department of Anthropology
Cornell University

Primary Sources

In-depth interviews on forced eviction and its outcomes
Life history interviews

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2013. 258 pp. Primary Advisor: Denise Burnette.

Image: Woman selling snacks in field site area. Photograph by author.

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