The child of a Cambodian prostitute stands in the doorway of a Phnom Penh slum shack
Gang rape has been a major problem in Cambodia for more than a decade, and now it’s getting even worse, Cambodian Member of Parliament Mu Sochua told Borderless News Online.
“It’s gotten worse. Because the issue is the issue of impunity, a judiciary system that is so corrupt,” said Mu, a former minister of women’s affairs and current member of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party.
“And the age of the victim is lower and the age of the perpetrator as well,” she said. “You have as young as…kids…12 years old, victims who are two years old, three years old. It’s really, really gruesome.”
In a country still suffering the after effects of the Khmer Rouge killing machine, Cambodian culture still enforces a sense of male superiority. Women who are considered “bad girls” – often sex workers, but increasingly just young women who work at nighttime entertainment venues – are the targets of rape and gang rape.
The practice is a part of young men’s culture in Cambodia, and it even has a name – bauk– and has been going on for years.
The perpetrators are often groups of young, middle and upper-middle-class men, out for a good time, and who believe that gang rape is an acceptable sport.
“Usually it occurs when a group of young men, who are usually under the influence of alcohol or drugs…they do it to sex workers, or women who work at night in the entertainment industry. And there have been cases in the villages,” she said.
Some NGOs have reported that even a woman seen taking a baby sip of beer can be a target, in a country with an overt and extremist “good girl, bad girl” complex that is widespread throughout the country. In a nutshell, good girls stay at home and cook and clean, whereas a “bad girl” can be a girl who simply works in a bar putting ice in customers’ drinks. And if you’re a bad girl, many men will believe they have the right to do anything they want to you — including rape and gang rape, according to a number of experts, researchers and others who’ve studied the problem up close.
According to a UN report released in 2013, more than 1 in 5 Cambodian men between ages 18 and 49 admit to having committed rape, and over half of those raped a woman before they turned 20.
The report also found that 20.8 percent of Cambodian men 1,863 men interviewed admitted to having committed rape, and 15.8 percent of those perpetrators did so before they reached age 15.
There’s also a culture of impunity that shields the perpetrators, she said.
“So unless we deal with this system of the court system that is corrupt,” she said, adding that to fix the problem, the issue of what she calls an overall corrupt judiciary needs to be dealt with.
“It’s difficult for women who are victims of rape or gang rape to get the police cooperation because the procedures, the process to get the report from the police, to get the medical checkup, to get witnesses, to go to court, is way too complicated,” she said.
“It’s men who feel they own the woman’s body, even if it’s boyfriend-girlfriend. And for women who are in the entertainment industry, those men buy the service, and those men think the service includes everything,” she said of men who purchase services from sex workers in Cambodia.
Mu Sochua pointed to a Cambodian proverb to make her point, which says that men are gold and that women are a white piece of cloth.
“Gold can be dropped in mud and if you wipe the mud off it shines again. While the white piece of cloth, if it stains, it stains forever,” goes the proverb that sums a very widespread belief in Cambodia.
Mu said that in fighting for women’s rights, the cooperation of men is needed, and that’s why during her first weeks as minister of women’s affairs years back, she changed the proverb to “women are precious gems and men are gold.” The implication was that both could be worn on a ring or piece of jewelry and both complement each other.
“In working toward women’s rights you need the cooperation of men in order to (make) mainstream the issue of gender equality. And you need the cooperation of men to address the issue of sexual violence,” she said.
While there are some awareness programs, Mu said the country needs much more than just awareness, and that men’s culture, attitude and behavior needs more than just a few a non-government organizations trying to educate people.
“It really has to be a nationwide effort,” she said, explaining that the whole country needs to be involved in such a drastic change in Cambodian culture.
Another issue is a need for police reform.
“It’s not that the police don’t want to reform,” she said. “It’s the political situation, this issue of sexual violence against women is not at the top of their agenda of reforms.”
Indeed, Cambodia’s political problems are getting worse and worse, with the ruling party threatening and launching physical attacks against the opposition.
The issue of rape and gang rape has not been reported much in recent years in the international media, despite the fact that it’s still a major problems, and indications are that it’s gotten worse in terms of the perpetrators and victims getting younger and younger.
“The problem with media is that the issue comes and goes. And when it’s picked up by one source, then it seems like it’s a wave, it’s like a fashion. And then it disappears suddenly and then comes back again,” she said.
Cambodia is not a place whose government keeps many statistics on such issues, and much of the information on the level of rape and gang rape is anecdotal. But such evidence is not to be taken lightly, as there are times when anecdotal information tells a more accurate story than any pollster or survey taker ever could.
Cambodia-based LICADHO noted in an email to Borderless News Online that there is no central record kept by the police or Ministry of Interior on reported rape cases. It is therefore difficult to get an idea of the real number of rapes happening or of trends. While the non-government organization has directed hundreds of rape cases in recent years, there’s no way to tell how many are going unreported. And in a country that makes it extremely difficult for rape survivors to get justice, there’s reason to believe that many cases go unreported.
In 2015 LICADHO investigated 282 rapes, and among those were 12 gang rapes. In 2014 the number was 258 rapes and 13 gang rapes. In 2013 that number was 256 rapes and among them 12 gang rapes. In 2012, LICADHO investigated 252 rapes, and among those were 13 gang rapes.
Still, those numbers are coming from just one relatively small NGO, and the figures are likely just the tip of the iceberg, considering the country’s widespread misogyny. Moreover, with the UN’s study that found that 1 in 5 Cambodian men have committed rape, logic would dictate that there would be a corresponding number — or at least a similar number — of rape and gang rape victims.
Shanta Bhavnani, a consultant with LICADHO, told Borderless News Online that the Cambodian government seems unwilling to provide a response to the problem and as a result many victims are poorly treated and poorly served by the Cambodian justice system.
In a report the organization put out last year, the group highlighted a case in which a woman went to visit her boyfriend and was raped by the boyfriend and his two friends. The judge ruled that because the woman went to the boyfriend’s house on her own accord, that it was not rape.