'Cutters,' as they are often called, are overwhelmingly women, often with histories of incest and sexual abuse.
Touch Srey Mao's eyes are veiled with sorrow. The raised white marks which ladder
her arms represent years of self-mutilation. In a guttural whisper she translates
the braille of scars into an increasingly common tale of drug abuse, prostitution
The habitual cutting of the wrists and arms is becoming more and more pervasive among
prostituted women in Cambodia says Aarti Kapoor, International Director of local
women's NGO AFESIP.
According to Kapoor, the worrying trend is linked to a recent growth in drug use
identified among young Cambodians. Kapoor said AFESIP has recently seen "whole
batches" of girls with serious substance abuse problems come into their shelters.
The majority of girls were introduced to drugs by those who facilitated or coerced
their entry into prostitution, and an increasing number of them bear the telltale
marks of self-abuse.
Touch Srey Mao, 28, works as a prostitute near Wat Phnom. She said she never wanted
to take drugs, but at seventeen capitulated to her peers and began smoking heroin.
It was at this juncture that she began to cut her forearms. As the effects of the
heroin wore off, Srey Mao would slash her arms with a razor blade in an attempt to
curb her cravings and vent the storm of emotions brewing inside her.
"When I don't have drugs I get very bad withdrawal symptoms like mood swings
and anger," Srey Mao said. "When I am cutting myself I don't know what
I am doing, but it helps me to calm down. It is only when I am calm again that I
realize how painful the cuts are."
The British Royal Society of Psychiatrists (RSP) says that self- harm should be viewed
as a coping mechanism. "Extreme feelings of fear, anger, guilt, shame, helplessness,
self-hatred, depression or despair can build up over time," reads the RSP research,
distributed through the website selfharm.org. "Self harm can be a way of dealing
with them. [It is] something [self harmers] can control when other parts of their
life may seem out of control."
According to the RSP, the conjunction of drug use and feelings of powerlessness can
cause vulnerable individuals to turn to self-mutilation.
"I don't feel like I have any control over my life as I cannot even control
my own mind," said Srey Mao, who has been cutting herself for eleven years.
"The people around me are always smoking yama and whenever I see people smoking
it makes me crave the drug myself. I don't think I will ever be able to stop. When
I smoke I fall into moods and experience emotions which I do not understand. I have
no outlet except to cut myself."
For the RSP, self-harm can be interpreted as a way of writing "help" across
one's body when all other channels of self expression have been closed. Touch Srey
Mao has never spoken to anyone about her emotional state, her drug abuse, or her
"People don't want to talk to women like me - they just try to ignore us,"
She has always used cutting herself as a means of dealing with her fear, tension
and anger: Emotional pain is turned into physical pain and so rendered more manageable.
Yet the scars etched on her arm fill her with regret and shame-she tries to keep
them a secret.
The prevalence of self-harm in a society is frequently under reported. According
the RSP research low self-esteem and feelings of guilt and shame cause "cutters"
to shroud themselves and their scars in secrecy. Also, while low self-esteem is a
common cause of self harm, it swiftly becomes an effect: Srey Mao cuts herself because
she feels worthless; she feels worthless because she cuts herself.
Yuk Srey Pao, 18, also works as a prostitute near Wat Phnom and has cut herself in
the past. "I think I am a really dull person," said Srey Pao. "When
I was young I didn't imagine I would be in the situation I am in at the moment, but
now I am trapped. I really want to change my life; however, I don't think I am able
Yuk Srey Pao and Touch Srey Mao both know many young women who cut themselves-Touch
Srey Mao's sister cuts herself particularly deeply. Despite Touch Srey Mao's entreaties,
her sister has refused all medical treatment and has consequently lost much of the
use of her hands.
The depth of emotional turmoil which drives people to self harm means that the damage
done is often incomprehensible not only to the outsider, but to the perpetrator themselves.
"When I was angry I couldn't feel anything but anger-I couldn't feel pain,"
Yuk Srey Pao said. "When I was calm I saw the damage I had done to myself and
I was afraid-afraid of myself."