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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rape threat worsening for Cambodian women

Rape threat worsening for Cambodian women

The incidence of rape is increasing in Cambodia and the victims are getting younger,

according to a human rights report.

"Rape and Indecent Assault: Crime in the Community" was produced by

the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)

Though little statistical evidence is available on the subject, the LICADHO report

states that a general atmosphere of impunity, easy access to violent, explicit pornography

and a belief that sex with young virgin girls has health benefits is causing a substantial

increase in incidents of rape throughout the Kingdom.

"The spread of HIV and AIDS in Cambodia has [also] resulted in some men seeking

out younger and younger girls to have sex with, in the [mistaken] belief that they

will be safe from disease... more shocking is the fact that some wives are acting

as accomplices by luring young girls for their husbands so that the husbands do not

go to the prostitutes and [thus] don't bring to them the deadly infection,'' LICADHO's

Acting Executive Director Naly Pilorge said, while stressing the need for more in-depth

statistical studies to determine the true extent of sexual abuse in Cambodia.

According to the report, 49% of the cases of rape reported to police in 1999-2000

resulted in the accused either being released with no consequences or encountered

delays in the judicial process months longer than reasonably explainable.

The remaining 51% of rape cases were "resolved" in the form of monetary

compensation to the victims or their marriage with the accused, a relationship of

compulsion that often adds to the victim's trauma.

An example of the impunity and insensitivity that child welfare and human rights

groups say characterizes judicial handling of rape in Cambodia involved a six-year-old

girl whose 19-year-old rapist received a suspended sentence after the Kandal provincial

judge ruled that the accused had not penetrated his victim "deep enough"

to destroy her virginity.

Cases like the above are blamed for encouraging the rape and sexual abuse of minors

due to the not-unfounded belief that perpetrators will escape punishment. That fear

is reflected in LICADHO statistics that show a steep increase in the reported cases

of rape and indecent assault on girls under 18. While 18 cases were reported in November

1995, of which 12 victims were between the age of 11 and 15 years, at least 126 cases

were reported between January and November 2000. Of these, 57 victims were between

11 and 15 years, while 28 were between 6 and 10 years.

The LICADHO report cites specific examples wherein the cases never made it to the

courtroom. One of the most shocking of such examples relates to a 15-year-old girl

who was set up by her two older female friends to be gang-raped.

The 15-year-old girl was dragged to a nearby cottage, threatened with death, and

raped by 15 men. While three of them could not be identified, the other 12 were released

after paying compensation. The two female accomplices went unpunished

"Children are not protected [by the law] because the law fails to define a minor

with respect to crime... it fails to define the legal age for sex and fails to provide

even a statutory rape law," the report observes.

"An example is the inconsistencies in the treatment of minor victims and the

minors offenders. For instance, offenders under 13 years would not have a criminal

liability, while the victims under 13 would be treated mature enough to give consent

for sex."

The new Cambodian draft criminal code, LICADHO says, is completely inadequate as

"not only does it fail to address the shortcomings of the existing criminal

law, but creates many more."

For instance, it lists the aggravating factors that enhance punishment such as marital

status and virginity, thereby putting the girl's sexual history under scrutiny. Increased

severity of penalties for cases in which the victim's virginity is deemed destroyed

also carry unreasonable moral undertones.

The draft considers sexual harassment as being the touching of the genitals. If the

victim is under 13 and there are no threats or violence, the minimum penalty stipulated

is one year, whereas in case of violence and threats, it is five years. If the victim

is over 13, the offender would be criminally liable only if force was used and the

stipulated punishment is only between one day and one month.

Another law drafted by French legal experts has recently been forwarded to the Interior

Ministry and is yet to be translated either in Khmer or English and, therefore, yet

to be scrutinized for its strengths and weaknesses.

Adding insult to the injury of rape is that rehabilitation services for Cambodian

rape victims are virtually non-existent, ensuring that the deep scars left on the

victims' psyche fester for years.

The few NGO facilities that do exist are concentrated in Phnom Penh, while government-run

services to treat the psychological needs of the victims of sexual crimes are, the

report says, "severely lacking".

Minister for Women and Veterans' Affairs Mu Sochua says her ministry is trying to

address Cambodia's rape problem by forging alliances with NGOs, local authorities

and international organizations.

"Our priority is the prevention of crime against women through public awareness,

advocacy in terms of human rights and creating sensitivity on gender issues... by

drilling into the minds of the people that a woman, whether a prostitute, a rich

house wife or a poor young girl, has equal human rights," Sochua said.

"The second [priority] is the protection of these rights through capacity building

of law enforcement agencies, to ensure that the unfortunate ones who end up as victims

receive full justice."

Sochua admits the prevailing gender imbalances in society give her little hope the

Cambodian judicial system will deliver justice to women in the short term, emphasising

instead education and empowerment of women so they are aware of their rights.

"We have to make a beginning from somewhere," she said.

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