Women in Cambodia: One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards

by Alexandra Amling

Reporting on a 2013 UN Study on male perpetration of violence against women (VAW) in the Asia-Pacific region, the Cambodian Daily stated that 1 in 5 men in Cambodia admitted to having raped a woman. A deeper study of the UN Reports shows that 20.4% of 1474 male interviewees reported having perpetrated rape against a woman or girl. Rape within marriage has a shockingly higher rate of 64%. In Cambodia this has prompted many to speak out against the country’s “rape culture” or the “culture of violence” against women in the nation.

High rates of VAW are not true just for the Asia-Pacific region; one only has to Google to find how violence against women is on the rise all over the world. Yet, most do not frame VAW in the US as “rape culture.” Going back to Cambodia’s case, the framing of the country as having a “culture of violence” against women obscures our understanding of the complexity of Cambodia’s modern history and current political economy. Ranking it among those presumably violent cultures in the Asia-Pacific region, Cambodia is ascribed an attribute that overemphasizes normative explanations of masculinities that perpetuate VAW but fails to mention the past and current trend of impunity, and the rapid socio-economic changes which pose obstacles to women’s empowerment and emancipation outside the realm of gendered traditional norms and values. Stigmatization alone does not do the job but VAW and gender are the new buzzwords and they sell well, whether for better or worse remains to be seen.

Signatory to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and equipped with a National Action Plan to Prevent Violence against Women, Cambodia’s government is well aware of the seemingly ubiquitous problem. Two surveys (2005 and 2009) assessed VAW in Cambodia, but leave a lot to be desired because the questions focused mainly on attitudes. Anybody familiar with the field of conflict studies knows that attitudes alone do not cause violent behavior. Context also matters and that is what is missing from the picture. Cambodian society has undergone major transitions in its modern history; it went from one socio-political turmoil to another which culminated in the rise and destructive force of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 until the UNTAC mission of 1991-93 supported the establishment of the Cambodia we know today. NGOs that worked to build the capacity of civil society became an integral part of all efforts to promote gender equality. Yet, VAW is still an issue. Why?

Domestic violence as one particular form of VAW is considered a private issue, and despite the implementation of a Domestic Violence (DV) Law, VAW remains under-reported. To this day, there are zero rulings under the DV Law against perpetrators. Partly because hardly any women report it, partly because police officers are awarded if their community displays harmony and no problems, the outcome of which is that reported cases won’t even make it to the court.

“It-That-Must-Not-Be-Named,a.k.a. VAW, is an apparent evil. Whereas in Harry Potter the vicious spirit was embodied in one particular person and easy to fight, the evil in Cambodia is far less tangible and far more complex. In a culture that apparently is holding its society hostage, violence against women and girls can thrive because VAW is direct, cultural and structural.

Direct because the prevalence rates leave no room for contestation. Cultural because unequal power dynamics are sanctioned by society and divorce is a sacrilege. Women are the weaker sex; they have to be soft-spoken, obedient and in lifelong servitude to their husbands who, at best, they can choose themselves. The Khmer Rouge dismantled societal structures, presumably advocating equality, as one Khmer Rouge survivor told me, but the mold was not broken and had a revival in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia as a means to cope with the past. Also, the concept of genders and how they relate to each other, both in its biological and social meaning, have no equivalent in the Khmer language.

Structural because to this day, only a few women dare to speak out, and those who do learn pretty quickly that the mills of justice grind slowly. Also, Cambodia’s young generation has little or no understanding of the Khmer Rouge. Being born post-Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s youth lacks adequate understanding and knowledge of the violent past of the Khmer Rouge. If it was not for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), impunity for committing such heinous crimes would continue. However, since it took decades to establish a war crime tribunal and because of its limited scope of focusing only on the leadership and not referencing Gender Based Violence (GBV) in its recent indictment in different cases, impunity against perpetration of violence in general, and VAW in particular, has proliferated over the years. Aspirations for a modern Western-style life – as apparent in the fact that Cambodia is the fastest growing market for smartphones – leave no room for commemorating the past and the current government is doing its best to support that trend.

Dismissing the past is delicate and by burying it, the main stakeholders bury the victims with it. Far from advocating victimization, I think this violent behavior against women and girls and the complexity of silence that veils it translated into a common practice which becomes particularly rampant taking into account the current socio-economic changes that do not alleviate pressures on men and women but rather reinforce them. Looking backward, moving forward, much is being done and the shift away from attitudes to focusing more on the context gives hope for Cambodia’s women.