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Under the Khmer Rouge, women and men were forced into marriages.  AFP/DC-CAM
Under the Khmer Rouge, women and men were forced into marriages. AFP/DC-CAM

Gender-based violence: Khmer Rouge survivors given a platform

"Four months after giving birth, a soldier raped me. That’s partly why I have some issues about sex.” “My community says I’m not a good woman – I didn’t get married traditionally.” “I felt so much pain – and I held that in for 30 years.”

These are just a handful of the brave testimonies from women who suffered gender-based violence (GBV) at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. Not included in the public sphere of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT), they are shared at self-help groups and women’s hearings organised by the Women and Transitional Justice in Cambodia project.

On Wednesday, the survivors’ ordeals will go public when four short documentaries about the project, produced and directed by Nicolaus Mesterharm with the help of his partner and fellow filmmaker Sao Sopheak, will premiere at Meta House.

In 2011, the project, implemented by the Victim Support arm of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the Cambodian Defenders’ Project (CDP) and the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO), was awarded funding from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women, and has since provided support to 137 survivors of GBV including forced marriage, domestic violence and rape. The real number of survivors, according to TPO psychologist and project co-ordinator Kim Thida, is much greater. Some are still in denial about what happened to them, she said. Others are afraid of being stigmatised by their friends and neighbours. While Thida can talk to them alone and informally, they can’t receive the same official testimony therapy as those who have filed an official complaint.

Through her work, Thida has come face to face with a range of cases, including women who were raped as young as nine years old. Of those who were forced into marriage, some were just 14, and many were raped by their husbands.

While it was part of the Khmer Rouge’s doctrine to separate families, they sadistically and arbitrarily paired up men and women with a view to them reproducing, thereby upholding the doctrine of preserving a pure Khmer heritage. Many survivors have spoken of how they would be forced to have sex with their husbands on their wedding night – or face execution.

Self-help groups support GBV survivors to overcome their ordeal.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Self-help groups support GBV survivors to overcome their ordeal. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Thida said: “Their lives are severely affected by this forced marriage, because in Khmer tradition, marriage is very sensitive. We have to get married traditionally, with the clothes and the music. Women and men can pick who they love, they can say,
‘He’s a good man, I want to live with him.’ At that time, they had no chance to choose who they want. Even if they know the guy is not a good guy, they had no choice.”

Khmer Rouge soldiers would also keep women and have sex with as and when they pleased. Thida spoke of one woman, whose case she described as “sexual torture”, who was kept in a small prison cell with 50 other women for several months.

Every day she would be raped by different soldiers, Thida said. In the documentary broadcasting the testimonials, two separate women talk about how they witnessed men fatally violate women with a hot iron rod.

Both the effects and coping methods resulting from GBV manifest themselves differently depending on the survivor. Thida said: “Some days they are willing to talk about it, some days they don’t want to. They have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – rape and forced marriage still affect them, they cannot focus and they have psychosomatic complaints, they have strong fears for no reason.”

Relationships following such abuse often break down, Thida said. Many of the women she works with don’t have a good relationship with their community. She said: “They feel alone, that’s why they become more isolated and just not able to discuss their stories, even with their families.”

While the beneficiaries of the Women and Transitional Justice in Cambodia project benefit from TPO’s services, their stories haven’t been put on the agenda at the KRT. According to the CDP’s project co-ordinator Doung Savorn, this is down to a number of reasons to do with the future of the court which are outside the project’s control. Case 002/001, the verdict of which is still being drafted, dealt solely with forced movements such as the evacuation of Phnom Penh. Furthermore, the Khmer Rouge leaders being brought to trial argue that the GBV perpetrated by individuals had nothing to do with Khmer Rouge policy.

Women’s hearings have given survivors a platform to talk about their experiences.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Women’s hearings have given survivors a platform to talk about their experiences. PHOTO SUPPLIED

What, then, of forced marriages? Were they not part of that policy? Savorn said: “Yes exactly, I don’t know either. Maybe people don’t think that gender-based violence issues are serious.”

He added: “It’s easier to link the crime with the accused, like mass evacuation for example, and this takes a lot of time. I don’t think the court will put the forced marriage case on the agenda, because of time limits.”

This is why the project organised women’s hearings, to give survivors a platform to testify against the Khmer Rouge and to share their experiences with others who have gone through a similar ordeal. It’s also the reason why Mesterharm decided to document the process. He said: “I wish these issues had been discussed in the trial, to give a formalised approach to it. But then again, it’s been discussed in women’s hearings, and broadcast through these documentaries. Rather than blaming people and saying, ‘You didn’t address it,’ what can we, the civil society, do to address it? That’s what this project is about.”

While the future of the court remains unclear, the current funding from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women will run out in September. What is the future for the project, and for the rehabilitation of these women? At present, Thida said, they don’t know. “We’d really love to, because we can see that there’s still a lot of survivors who need help – not just civil parties but in the community as well. But for now, we can’t say if we’re going to apply for another grant or not.”

Savorn was less positive, saying that the future of the project very much relies on the future of the court – one about which he is not particularly optimistic. He said: “We need to support these women. We don’t want to just do it once in a while for a few years and then stop.”

The documentaries will premiere at 7pm on Wednesday January 28 at Meta House, followed by a Q&A session with filmmakers and NGO representatives. Entry is free.

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