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Breaking the Silence on Rape in Cambodia

  • JASS

How come the majority of women survivors of domestic violence never seek help from authorities? How come rape survivors rarely report to the local authorities? Why do many people tend to blame rape victims for what happens to them? How come the majority of men are aware of the laws on domestic violence and rape and yet some of them still continue to commit these abuses? How can rape be stopped? How can a country that has supposedly learned from its violent history continue to inflict violence on women?

These and more were the questions ringing in Yit Sophorn’s mind as she, along with fellow members of the youth alliance Cambodian Young Women’s Empowerment Network (CYWEN), prepared for the community forum on violence against women on the 10th of December 2015. The forum was one among the series of activities that women’s organizations such as JASS Southeast Asia (JASS SEA), CYWEN, Gender and Development in Cambodia (GADC), Banteay Srei, Strey Khmer, ADHOC (Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association), Oxfam-Cambodia and other groups organized.

The community forum successfully assembled 195 women and men from various backgrounds – community people, high school teachers, students, police, local government officials, NGO workers, and women activists. For Yit Sophorn, gathering these people in one space is historic.

Indeed, in Southeast Asia, Cambodia has some of the highest statistics on violence against women – most notable of which came out in a survey in 2013: one in five Cambodian men admitted to raping a woman. More recently, the first six months of 2015 showed an increase in rape of women and children, according to statistics. ADHOC revealed that sexual abuse against women and children rose to 131 cases during the first six months of 2015, an increase from 51 cases compared with the same period in the last year.  There were also five reported cases of rape of children under 5 years of age, 32 cases of rape of children under 10 years, 63 cases of rape of girls under 18 years, and a total of 31 cases of rape of women over 18 years old. There were three rape-slay cases recorded and 15 cases of rape of disabled girls and women.

This high incidence of rape was one of the key things that the dialogue sought to address.

JASS’ Annual Regional Campaign One Day, One Voice (ODOV)

This was not the first time that JASS and CYWEN partnered with women’s groups and other institutions to hold a discussion on violence against women (VAW). In 2011, when JASS Southeast Asia inaugurated the first One Day, One Voice campaign as part of the global 16 Days of Activism campaign, young women from CYWEN rallied 300 young women and men from various high schools and universities for a public forum on ending violence against women. This event spawned significant radio and television coverage featuring the young women’s voices.

More than a campaign, One Day, One Voice draws on years of training and support by JASS for hundreds of young, grassroots, LBTI (lesbian-bisexual-trans-intersex), poor and indigenous women organizers in seven countries – Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor‐Leste, and the Philippines. Women from these Southeast Asian countries symbolically unite in simultaneous dialogues, cultural performances, flash mobs, photo exhibits, and protest actions that take place during the 16 Days of Activism (from November 25 to December 10).

In 2013, when Cambodia served as the lead country of the annual regional campaign ODOV, CYWEN mobilized hundreds of young students from different universities in Phnom Penh when it conducted a dialogue with the theme “One Fight, One Voice against Rape: Defend our Sisters: ‘Are Women Objects to Be Abused?’” on 1 December 2013.

Young Women-Led Actions

In 2015, Cambodia commemorated 16 Days of Activism and JASS SEA’s ODOV campaigns with the country theme “Ending Rape against Women in Cambodian Society”. Activities such as the community forum was complemented with a 16-day social media campaign that raised awareness about rape and abuse through the posting of women’s e-posters with informational messages in CYWEN’s and JASS SEA’s Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Women from CYWEN likewise graced radio talk shows to discuss VAW and to introduce ODOV to the listening public.

The community forum, in particular, sought to get broad support from local authorities and from the community to take action on violence against women and to seek justice for women survivors of violence, especially rape cases. It also aimed to strengthen the people’s awareness about the effects of VAW on women, and the legal protections available to women.

When Yit Sophorn, national coordinator of the youth alliance CYWEN, learned about these alarming statistics: “It’s heart-wrenching. The worst part is when victims get blamed by society. It is high time that local people have spaces like these to discuss with local authorities about it. It is a reality that law enforcement is very poor. It needs to work well, so that justice will be attained by our sisters”.

One of the many things that women survivors of abuse consider: to file or not to file a case against the perpetrators. In some cases, survivors refrained from filing complaints due to feelings of shame that they and their family felt, especially fearing to lose their honour in their community. Rape survivors are usually blamed for the crime as victim-blaming is still common in Cambodia. And if they decide to file a case and even if they eventually win, survivors of abuse feared backlash – the acts of revenge after the perpetrator’s release from prison. In many cases, survivors are also scared, particularly in cases where the perpetrator is a wealthy person or a high-ranking official. They do not sufficiently trust the court system in these cases.

Most of the participants of the community forum were shocked when they learned about the VAW data presented and were curious as to how domestic violence and rape of women and children could be stopped, and how to enable safety in communities. One of the local women in the audience said: “We are grassroots people. We are especially concerned about the safety of our children when they go to school. We are afraid that our children will be raped because we know that it may not be easy to escape if they get assaulted along the road and sometimes the streets are not safe. I would like to ask you as our local authorities – how do we prevent our children from getting raped in our community?”

A high school student from Prey Veng province commented: “When I heard about the rape cases happening in our community, I felt scared. I want my school to be safe from these kinds of abuses. This forum gave us the space we needed to ask questions. What I learned here is very useful for me as a student and as a young woman with reasonable fears.”

Long Soporn, chief of the ChorChap Commune of Prey Veng province expressed his thanks to the local officials and all the participants who joined the forum. He expressed his gratitude most especially to CYWEN who “organized the forum and helped the commune people strengthen their awareness on VAW”. He pledged to learn more about gender issues and put these issues on the table in 2016 – particularly on the “commune investment plan”. At the same time, he vowed to lead in the prevention of VAW and to completely eliminate VAW in his commune.

Local women officials emphasize the duty of everyone in the community. According to Brach Sarian, chairperson of the District Women and Children Affair, “Violence against women is no longer family problem. It is our problem. Women have rights. If you know of unreported VAW cases, please alert the authorities to intervene or call your neighbors for help. Sexual violence is a criminal case. Everyone has to cooperate, report to local authorities, and file complaints to the court”.

But despite the laws, abuses continue to happen. As Ang Kimly, coordinator of ADHOC Prey Veng province puts it: “In our community, rape cases are prevalent. As a lawyer working in a non-government organization (NGO), I can easily help rape victims by filing cases in court. Sometimes, there are problems along the way. There’s corruption in the courts in some cases. Or intense pressure forces some victims to an out-of-court settlement. That is why I am calling on everyone to take action. Human rights lawyers, NGOs, and women’s groups cannot do it alone. We need the entire community to support the victim”.

A lot of young women pledged their support: “We are a young women’s group and we care about all our sisters, especially women survivors of violence. My passion is to see women in our society live without fear. We have to claim our power, our rights, and justice. We should not keep silent,” said Prom Leackhena, program officer of GADC and also a member of CYWEN.

“We in CYWEN believe that we can engage more people, especially young women, in the future – whether through workshops, dialogues, street actions, or radio talk shows. We will keep providing safe spaces such as this community forum for them to see how awareness-raising on rape and women’s collective action effectively address the issue of rape,” said Yit Sophorn.

At the end of the day, Yit Sophorn realized that the answers to her questions are never easy to learn. In Prey Veng province where the ODOV event was held, the community forum served to open the dialogue on the issue; one of its longer term objectives was to curb rape. For young women like Yit Sophorn to know more, JASS’ regional One Day, One Voice campaign is a step in the right direction.


Article written by: Yit Sophorn and Osang Langara


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