A headline-grabbing sexual harassment suit filed late last year against the provincial director of an NGO faces what is likely an uphill battle, but observers say the very fact it exists could highlight how far Cambodia has come on the issue.
Hi Theavy, 25, brought the case against the Cambodian Mine Action Centre employee in November, saying he and a friend had made unwanted advances while she was working as a beer girl at Stung Sen restaurant in Preah Ponlea commune’s Kbal Spean village.
After proceedings stalled for two months, allegations surfaced two weeks ago that the prime minister’s younger brother, Hun San, had lobbied the court to drop the case.
Lim Mony, deputy head of the women’s section at Adhoc, said the single mother had changed her phone number and was worried for her safety after her abuser made threatening phone calls, telling her “she didn’t have the power to go against him”.
It is an all-too common refrain in a country where sexual harassment is still undefined and under-reported compared to rape, domestic abuse and sex trafficking.
But that may be changing.
“This case is an important example for other women who want to raise their complaint to the court, to show perpetrators should be punished,” said Chuon Chamrong, head of the women’s section at rights group Adhoc, which is aiding Hi Theavy in her case. “It’s an example to show that women can exercise their rights, where there are few cases of harassment submitted to the court.”
Rights groups and researchers believe that sort of empowerment is attributable on some level to increasing awareness of the offence and its redresses.
Dr Andreas Selmeci, team leader of a collaborative project GIZ, Germany’s international development arm, is undertaking with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs on access to justice for women in Cambodia.
He said that just as domestic abuse and rape had come to the fore in the past 10 to 15 years, sexual harassment looked set to have its turn in the spotlight.
“A lot of people are leaving the countryside, joining the urban areas, which leads to a lot of social change,” he said.
“At a village level, families can protect from these things happening, but in urban areas isolated from the larger family, people are more vulnerable to transgressions.”
The increase in women joining the workforce has also contributed, he said, as harassment largely happens in the workplace.
“You have poor people in a high level of dependency . . . this is seen as different from rape, because that is not necessarily a situation of economic dependency.”
Harassment was one response to the increasing population of female workers, said Dr Susan Lee, Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at Boston University.
“Sexual harassment . . . often works to keep women ‘in their place’, especially when women are venturing into areas traditionally dominated by men,” she said.
The problem was exacerbated by women – only just getting used to the changing nature of gender roles in society – being reluctant to speak up about the abuses.
“Women often choose not to speak up because they may feel they have more to lose than to gain,” she said.
CARE project manager Eart Pysal said the right of women to speak out about harassment was a new cultural concept.
CARE has been working with beer promoters through the Solidarity Association of Beer Promoters in Cambodia over the past two years to set up education and measures addressing abuse. The project includes the training of beer promoters who act as role models and contact points for colleagues who suffer from harassment.
To date, 378 beer promoters have received life-skills training, said Eart Pysal. Together, they reach more than 600 of Cambodia’s estimated 4,000 beer promoters.
CARE is one of a network of 16 NGOs that collaborate with the government on sexual harassment issues.
Other initiatives set up in recent years include community dialogues with commune authorities, police and outlet owners, hotlines and the prominent display of materials on harassment at beer gardens and pubs.
Secretary of State for the Ministry of Interior Chou Bun Eng said the government was focusing on prevention by disseminating information through the Ministry of Tourism and local authorities.
The difficulty proving sexual harassment could discourage victims from filing complaints, said Cambodian Defenders Project executive director Sok Sam Ouen.
“Sexual harassment is usually only known by the two – perpetrator and victim – with no physical evidence,” he said.
Lee highlighted how even in the US, it was hard for women to bring such charges.
“A key question is how authorities respond to sexual harassment . . . it helps to have special police and judicial units to deal with such cases,” she said.
Public education was important, she said, as she had found that women with even just five or six years of elementary education felt more empowered.
Whatever steps are taken in the future, it seems likely that the handling of Hi Theavy’s complaint will be a litmus test for where the country stands on this issue now.