“My father never wanted a girl,” said Sarak (not her real name).
“He told me I had to stop school in fifth grade, he said that girls just work in the kitchen. I had to do everything at home, everything for my brothers. They would always eat first and then I would eat the scraps that they left.”
Sarak’s story is just one of many in Cambodia, a country where gender inequality runs rife and women are disproportionately affected by violence and discrimination. Gender-based violence is largely rooted in inequality, abuse of power and harmful cultural norms that include domestic abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking.
As in much of the world, sexual violence is widespread throughout the small Southeast Asian nation which according to one of the few human rights organizations based in the country, LICHADO, includes violent rape, murder-rapes, gang rape and the rape of children as young as two or three years old.
The severity of violence against women is often not acknowledged and instead beliefs such as men are not responsible for their actions are common. Furthermore, the perception that women are guilty of the crimes perpetrated against them and are to be blamed for the violence they suffer all perpetuate a culture that permits sexual violence and harassment. Far too often, perpetrators face little punishment for their crimes and violence against women is trivialized.
These attitudes towards violence and discrimination against women and girls can be attributed to the patriarchal nature of society in Cambodia and the low status given to women which is compounded by cultural traditions of inferiority and subservience of women. This is reflected for example, in traditional codes of conduct such as the Chbab Srey (Women’s Law) that teach women to be subservient to men.
Girls and boys learn at a very young age that there are differing societal expectations for men and women and that value is attributed differently. This can be reflected in the common expression for example, “men are gold, women are cloth” which is interpreted as meaning a man can have as many sexual encounters as he pleases while remaining untarnished, as gold still shines when cleaned but, once a woman loses her virginity, she is like a white cloth that is dirtied and can never be cleaned again.
Traditionally, women are expected to remain virgins until marriage, and a girl who loses her virginity beforehand, even in the case of rape, is often considered to be “unmarriable.” In cases of sexual assault, more concern is placed on the victim’s loss of virginity and the effect on the family’s reputation as opposed to the violent actions of the perpetrator and the suffering of the victim. As a result, many victims are deterred from reporting violence and are instead left to suffer in silence.
However, despite the silence on the issue, the violence against women is a serious problem in Cambodia.
A survey undertaken of 2,000 Cambodian men, by four United Nations (UN) agencies for example, found that as many as one in five of the respondents have attempted or committed violence against women, including rape. Almost half of those who admitted to being violent said that they never faced any kind of punishment.1
Sexual harassment is also a serious problem. Care Australia reports that in Cambodia’s garment industry, that is largely reliant on female labor, sexual harassment is a major human rights concern, with nearly one in three women reporting experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.2
Human trafficking is another serious concern in Cambodia. According to UN Women, in many cases, the lack of employment leads many women and girls to look for opportunities in tourist destination cities where they become vulnerable to human trafficking and being sold into brothels or being sent abroad. Women are also commonly coerced or tricked into working in massage parlors, karaoke bars, and beer gardens, where local and foreign men look for sexual services.3
Poverty in some cases, may lead families to sell their daughters to traffickers or to pay off a family members debt. Once trafficked, the victim is forced to work in order to pay off her family member’s debt.
It is estimated that in 2016, around 1.5 million people in the Greater Mekong subregion were victims of human trafficking, with approximately 256,000 of those being in Cambodia. This is three times the estimated number of victims from 2006, showing a dramatic increase in the problem.4
Many men do not accept that women have the right to be free from violence of any form, and in many cases many women are not confident to stand up for their rights and do not understand that it is their right to be from violence.
However, in the case that a victim does wish to seek justice for a sexual assault, the victim’s parents may not want to report the crime to authorities because of the potential damage to the family’s reputation. The family will often encourage the victim to “settle,” by accepting money from the family of the perpetrator or by marrying the rapist. There have also been cases of women being sent away to other villages or being forced into prostitution by her family since it is believed she is “already spoiled” and she has no other options.
In cases where a victim does decide to pursue criminal action against a perpetrator, she will likely face the cultural and social attitudes described above, even in the courthouse. A lack of understanding of the rape legislation and a failure to apply the law consistently also exacerbates the problem.
Positively, there have been some good efforts made by the Cambodian government to address gender-based violence against women. The Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims was passed in 2005, demonstrating that there is some recognition of a woman’s right to be free from violence. However, there are many law enforcement officials and the general public who are not aware of the existence of this law. The Cambodian government also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1992, however, implementation of the provisions has not been evident in Cambodian courts.
The Women’s Affairs and Information ministries launched a media code of conduct for reporting violence against women and the health sector has also adopted guidelines and practices to improve the treatment of female victims of violence.
Despite these attempts by the Cambodian government to combat violence and discrimination, many changes still need to be made, particularly in the area of legislation and social attitudes in order to improve the lives of women and girls in Cambodia. However, where the most significant change is needed is making perpetrators of violence and discrimination become aware that they are responsible for their actions and that they will be subject to punishment.
Only a tough response, political will and stronger government investment can make real progress in the fight against misogynistic violence in Cambodia. So now is the time for everyone to stand-up as remaining silent or disengaged is not an option. No country can achieve its full social and economic potential while women are at risk of gender-based violence, and only few male perpetrators are held accountable.
Johanna Higgs has a PhD in Anthropology about the child combatants of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) in Colombia. She founded the organization Project Monma which advocates for women's rights around the world. She is now based in Cambodia.
For further information, please contact: Johanna Higgs – Project Monma, email@example.com, www.projectmonma.co.
1 What is needed to end violence against women in Cambodia?, UNDP Cambodia, 30 November 2017, www.kh.undp.org/content/cambodia/en/home/presscenter/articles/2017/11/30/what-is-needed-to-end-violence-against-women-in-cambodia-.html.
2 Women in Cambodia’s Garment Industry: Their Work, Their Safety, CARE Australia, www.care.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/SHCS_Brief-Women-Cambodia-Garment-Industry-March-2017_CA.pdf.
3 A fresh look and a fresh start for survivors of human trafficking in Cambodia, UN Women, 14 January 2019, www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2019/1/feature-fresh-start-for-survivors-of-human-trafficking-in-cambodia
4 UN Women, ibid.