I am a researcher in Cambodia collecting oral testimonies from victims and witnesses of sexualised violence during the Khmer Rouge regime, a topic long neglected in historical accounts of the period.
I am frequently asked if I note connections between the violence committed against women during the “Pol Pot time” and the endemic levels of violence against women today.
Often this question is posed in the context of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), which has determined that rapes committed outside of forced marriage cannot be linked to the accused.
That determination is based on a faulty interpretation of a Khmer Rouge policy against “moral offences”, which the ECCC mistakenly considers an anti-rape policy. In fact, the policy put women at greater risk of sexual abuse and served to rationalise further punishment of victims, if the rape was discovered, for sexual activity outside of marriage.
From research thus far, rapists of the period were all state actors of the regime and therefore most often raped with impunity and entitlement.
From the collected research, it seems the most commonly reported scenario of rape under the regime was gang-rape by Khmer Rouge cadre (though instances have been recorded of rapists at higher levels). The rapists are often noted to be very young, many still in their teen years.
Rapes usually occurred against women deemed “enemies of the state”, and therefore took place in a context of punishment. Fearing further penalty for “moral offences”, victims who survived the ordeal remained silent.
The recently released UN report of six Asia-Pacific countries, including Cambodia, on men’s use of sexual violence against women (“Cambodia’s Young Rapists,” September 11, 2013) provides strong evidence that rape in Cambodia today replicates state rapes committed under the Khmer Rouge regime in disturbing ways.
Indeed, the findings of the UN report for Cambodia are startling in how distinct they are from the other countries surveyed, indicating unresolved trauma from the genocidal Khmer Rouge period.
According to the report, Cambodia is the only country where gang rape is the most common form of rape (twice the rate of India), while it is the least common form of rape in all other countries.
Also striking is the young age of perpetrators, with more than half of Cambodian men committing their first rape before the age of 20, and almost 16 per cent under the age of 15. Equally chilling – and unique to Cambodia – 42 per cent of men cite rape out of anger and as deserved punishment, rather than due to alcohol or for “fun” as in the other countries.
Indeed, the most common motivation Cambodian men cite for rape is entitlement, with 45 per cent of men believing they have the right to sex with women, whether a partner or non-partner, regardless of consent. More than 44 per cent of rapists have never faced legal consequences.
Perversely, researchers of the UN study found that perpetrators were more willing to openly discuss their rapes than victims were to self-disclose.
Impunity for violence against women saturates a society, becoming deeply entrenched over time as a male prerogative, rather than a crime, that profoundly harms another human being.
Prosecution and conviction – for past and present violence – is the key to unlocking cultural acceptance of women’s denigration and normalisation of gender-based abuse.
Theresa de Langis, Ph.D., Phnom Penh