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In Cambodia, Silent Reactions to Sexual Violence May Be the Norm



Cambodian woman pulling a cart.
Cambodian women who experience gender violence are known to suffer in silence rather than to report the crime to authorities. Here, a woman with her pushcart selling goods. LAURETTA REEVES

PHNOM PENH — Kunthear Laut, a 33-year-old Cambodian woman, is a child of marital rape and a victim of two rapes as well as three attempts and at least five years of incest from her uncle. “A woman has to obey a man; otherwise he uses violence,” she said in an interview with PassBlue about these experiences. Her reaction to sexual abuse is not uncommon in Cambodia. “When I was young, I was scared; now I am not anymore and I do not care if this is happening”that is, being raped.

A recent UN multicountry study on men and violence in Asia-Pacific nations was conducted in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka, with 10,000 men and 3,000 women participating through interviews from 2010 to 2013. These countries represent the diversity of the region, the study said, though India was not included despite the rise of rape cases there.

The study, concentrating on intimate-partner violence and nonpartner rape, explores the prevalence of violence against women in the six Asia-Pacific countries and reveals what drives men to act violently. Male rape against females was pervasive across the countries but prevalence varied.

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As the study said, intimate-partner violence is “the most common form of violence against women globally.” In Cambodia, 1 woman out of 4 admitted to having experienced at least one act of gender-based violence (physical or sexual) or both by an intimate partner. This is the smallest proportion in the countries covered: percentages varied from 25 percent in Cambodia to 68 percent in Papua New Guinea.

Nonpartner rape occurrences ranged from 4 percent to 41 percent in the study overall. Cambodia recorded 8 percent of men admitting to have committed a nonpartner rape, while 1 in 5 has committed rape against his partner in his lifetime.

In Cambodia, rape and gang rape are critical issues in its society, where women seem to tolerate this violence in silence. The report shows, for example, that 53 percent of the Cambodian men who were interviewed were 19 years old or younger when they first raped. Their main motivation was sexual entitlement. While research continues to search for the precise reasons behind this sense of privilege, the notion of “rape,” needs to be better defined in the Cambodian society, women say informally. The concept of “consent” is culturally debatable as well, and 99 percent of women in Cambodia interviewed for the study believed that “to be a man, you need to be tough.”

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Inala Fathimath, a consultant for UN Women working on the End Violence Against Woman program in Phnom Penh, said that sex workers and girlfriends are common victims of rape in Cambodia. To her, this reflects a more “opportunistic” situation than anything else.

“Nowadays, brothels still exist and are underground,” she said, adding that if women are raped in brothels, they cannot report it. If they do, it is common for them to give bribes to the police, as they are not supposed to work in brothels to begin with.

Marital rape, as in many other countries worldwide, is a gray area for men and women in Cambodia. A majority of the men and women interviewed for the report were married; 1 in 4 women admitted to having been victimized through intimate-partner violence. Because it is unclear what constitutes marital rape, it goes mostly unpunished in Cambodia. The lack of capacity of relevant officials to record the crime data reflects the problems in addressing such violence in Cambodia.

“For example, if a sexual violence case is happening within a home, it will be a domestic violence case most of the time, even if the perpetrator is a relative raping the woman, which is a rape case; not a domestic violence case,” Fathimath of UN Women said. The misunderstanding can distort data and its significance.

Although gender equality is guaranteed by the Cambodian constitution, especially regarding marriage and family matters, the state seldom provides legal protection to women and girls who are affected by violence. At the local level, victims of domestic, gender-specific or sexual violence are often left to fend for themselves.

Some say that the legal approach to fighting rape in Cambodia is inadequate. Dr. Andreas Selmeci, a team leader of the GIZ/Access to Justice for Women program, financed by the German government in Cambodia, said, “The Cambodian Law on Domestic Violence uses the very unclear phrase ‘violent sex,’ although the concept of rape has been considerably improved in the new criminal code.”

The Penal Code was adopted in 2010 and defines rape as a criminal offense. The Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims, adopted in 2005, is linked to intimate-partner violence, leaving marital rape not specifically illegal under any law. Although Cambodia’s record of punishing perpetrators is higher than the other countries researched in the study — almost 50 percent of those admitting to rape were arrested and 28 percent faced jail time — just under half  faced no legal consequences.

Dr. Selmeci pointed out that the “spirit of the laws” is different in Cambodia than in the other countries studied. “Unfortunately, many people in the government do not understand the following point: If a law against gender-based violence works well, there are more complaints to the police and the courts,” he said. “If there are less [complaints], it shows that the laws do not have the wished impact yet. But many people from the government are still showing decreasing numbers of rape or trafficking complaints as alleged ‘evidence’ for successful law enforcement.”

In her book, “When Silence Is Silent,” published in March in French (“Quand se tait le silence”), Kunthear Laut recalls her mother telling her that her father raped her brutally before admitting he had already been married and separated from his first wife and would marry her mother once the war was over. Laut also relayed how she was not asked about when her own uncle raped her for the first time, which began before she was 10 years old.

“One night, as I was asleep, I felt a vague pain in the lower abdomen. . . . It went on for nights. . . . ” One night, she went on, she  felt “someone over me as I was sleeping  . . .  and heard my aunt begging him to stop.” That was when she “started to understand what was happening.” The uncle had raped her mother twice before abusing Laut.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines rape as “sexual intercourse without valid consent.” The age of consent is 15 in Cambodia, but the notion of consent is not clearly agreed on culturally, which can be the case in many other countries, across all economic and geographic spheres. In the UN report, about 82 percent of Cambodian women said that if a woman did not physically fight back it is not rape, while 65 percent of men thought the same.

“It is necessary and possible to refer to the concept of consensual sex,” Dr. Selmeci said. “However, one should not assume to apply American ways on how to establish that consensus. In Cambodian erotic life, not every ‘yes’ is a yes, and not every ‘no’ is a no.”

Laut explained this mind-set in the interview: “Sex with Cambodian men is only linked to their own pleasure. The woman does not count, and every form of violence is linked to the fact that a woman has to do what men say. Otherwise, they use violence.”

The UN report confirmed that the causes behind male to female intimate-partner violence are often related to gender inequality, men’s childhood experiences and enacting harmful forms of masculinity. At least one form of childhood abuse was directly linked with intimate-partner violence in Cambodia, where two out of three men suffered physical abuse in their childhood.

As Dr. Selmeci said: “Many Cambodian parents quickly resort to threats or violence when under stress. They cannot express their feelings and explain to their children what it means to be a man or a woman.”

The notion of consent is even less applicable to sex workers. Half of the men in Cambodia interviewed for the report have paid for sex at least once in their lives, and 18 percent of them had sex with a sex worker. Fathimath of UN Women explained that transactional sex is common in Cambodia and “there is a common understudying and attitude that consent does not apply to a sex worker.”

Gang rape in Cambodia occurs at a 5 percent prevalence rate, whereas most of the other countries in the report ranged from 1 to 2 percent. Papua New Guinea registered the highest, at 14 percent. Gang rape is “the least common form of rape except in Cambodia, where it was more common than nonpartner rape by a perpetrator acting alone,” the report said.

Laut talked about what she escaped a month ago: “I was going home late at night after work, and the motorbike driver I hired to bring me back home burst a tire. I decided to walk. Seven young men encircled me, stole my money, my bag, my phone and they told me, ‘Now it’s your turn.’ I told them I was married and had four children; I asked them how they would feel if this would happen to their wives or sisters. They were not happy with what I said, so they let me go.”

The pathology behind gang rape, Dr. Selmeci said, is “about getting recognition from other men and about using power. These men know that the woman is suffering. Sometimes it is a kind of revenge.” Yet researchers are still looking at the source of such vengeful acts — sometimes it can be as simple as men thinking that a woman did not act properly or had to suffer for some personal offense.

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Clothilde Le Coz is an independent journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, who specializes in social, political and human-rights issues. She is a media development consultant for the Cambodian Center for Independent Media and formerly worked as the Washington D.C. director for Reporters Without Borders. She has an M.A. in international relations and journalism and a B.A. in political science, both from SciencesPo in Grenoble, France. She also has a bachelor in philosophy from the Sorbonne.

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