In the last edition of the Post, (July 18, 2003) Dr Nou entered the debate about
'the role of the Khmer Rouge as it pertains to the deviant behaviour (ie, gang rape
or the bowk phenomenon) of youth in present-day Cambodia'.
Through publicizing the findings of her study, Dr Nou was arguably seeking to draw
a parallel between negative coping behaviours (an example of which could be bowk)
and psychological stressors on Cambodian students.
While some may have taken her article to be 'blaming the Khmer Rouge' for current
youth involvement in gang rape, I do not believe this was her intention.
I support Dr Nou's perspective to the extent that many Cambodian young people are
suffering from stress, especially in relation to the firsthand effects and/or intergenerational
ramifications of trauma.
In other words, children born post 1979 may still be affected by the DK regime as
traumatized parents potentially experience difficulty in developing healthy, emotional
International research conducted by Dr Bruce Perry (2002) suggests that repeated
experiences of fear during childhood coupled with a lack of attachment can result
in neuro-physiological adaptations that physically alter the development of the brain,
resulting in 'physiological, emotional, behavioural, cognitive and social changes'.
Such experiences predispose a child to being less able to deal with stressors later
Exposure to high levels of trauma further correlates to a potential for callousness
and brutality of the sort that is perpetrated in the act of gang rape.
If one is emotionally absent due to post-traumatic stress disorder (involving the
suppression of memories and associated feelings), this has the potential to limit
one's ability to empathise, or to put oneself in another's shoes.
For these reasons I fully support advocating that government and donor agencies place
a greater priority on mental health spending especially in relation to freely available
However as Dr Nou would agree, to recognise the influence of trauma on this societal
issue is to grasp one piece in the puzzle.
Some existing research that has touched on bowk includes the Wilkinson and Fletcher
(2002) study Sweetheart Relationships in Phnom Penh: Love, Sex & Condoms in the
Time of HIV (PSI) and the Paupers and Princelings study (2003).
These studies find evidence to support a relationship between traditional (eg, pre-Khmer
Rouge) cultural conceptions of masculinity, femininity and gang rape.
The way females are valued according to their perceived virginal integrity can lead
to what is described as the good woman/bad woman dichotomy.
'Bad' women can be perceived as women who 'deserve what they get' because they deviate
from 'good', socially sanctioned behaviour.
Potential examples of such women are: prostitutes; non-married women with boyfriends
or sexual partners; those who wear fashionable clothes and practice 'modern ways';
or, those who go out at night.
Some men view such women as being sub-human, tainted, or out of line with accepted
cultural norms and therefore 'fair game' for being raped.
Furthermore, the low status of young people and the lack of opportunities they have
for expressing a collective voice and identity in society arguably contributes to
the spontaneous formation of groups that engage in deviant behaviour such as bowk.
Through gang-raping together, young males appear to be seeking to overcome social
and economic obstacles to having sex and feeling like strong, successful men.
These findings suggest that the question needs to be asked of society: What are we
doing that is influencing numbers of young Khmer males to rape so that they can feel
like strong men? The gang rape of women continues, with Keb Thmei still reportedly
being the most popular destination for young males to take their victims.
However, the blame cannot rest on young males alone, nor can we blame the Khmer Rouge
for bowk or for other current gender issues such as the delay in gaining legislative
approval for Cambodian laws prohibiting rape and domestic violence within marriage.
Instances of rape, violence and discrimination exist within long-standing historical
and cultural contexts and cannot be blamed on a historical aberration alone.
Worldwide there is an ongoing need to challenge oppressive ideologies and the social,
economic and political patterns of behaviour underpinning gender inequality.
Yet simultaneously, the psychological ripple effect of the atrocities committed by
the Khmer Rouge should not be ignored.
Perhaps on a societal, as on an individual level, the potential for positive change
begins with abandoning our denial, recognising the influence of the past while reflectively
seeking to take responsibility for our actions in the present.
- These comments reflect the opinion of the writer only.
Luke Bearup and researcher Tong Soprach conducted the Paupers and Princelings: Youth
Attitudes Toward Gangs, Violence, Rape, Drugs and Theft (2003) on behalf of LNGO
Gender and Development for Cambodia.
A copy of the report is available at the GAD/C website:
Links to information in relation to trauma research conducted by Dr Perry (2002)
are available at: www.childtrauma.org
- Luke Bearup