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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Study sheds new light on sexual abuse of children

Study sheds new light on sexual abuse of children

Like many educational materials for sex abuse victims, the "White Lotus"

story targets girls. The booklet, written and distributed by the NGO Tearfund, tells

the story of a beautiful pond flower damaged by an angry young boy with a stick.

In the end, a bride-to-be restores the lotus and gives it a prominent place in her

wedding ceremony.

It's hard to imagine the tale having much resonance with boys, and that's a problem,

according to a study released in mid-March.

A survey on child abuse conducted by Tearfund, World Vision Cambodia, World Hope

and Child Welfare Group found that more boys reported having been sexually abused

than girls. In response to the question "have you been sexually touched on the

genitals by an adult before you were nine years old?" 13.3 percent of girls

and 15.7 percent of boys said yes. A similar question, inquiring about touching past

the age of nine, received an affirmative answer from 13.5 percent of girls and 18.9

percent of boys.

Though numbers for rapes were low, boys still led, with 1.8 percent saying they had

been raped, compared to .6 percent of girls.

"This is an area we really need to address," said Glenn Miles, children

at risk facilitator for Tearfund. "Everything being done about child exploitation

is being done related to girls."

The general approach isn't wholly misguided. Reported rapes of underage girls have

skyrocketed over the last few years, with different rights organizations seeing increases

as high as 200 percent, said Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho.

Though she admitted there might be some discrepancies in the numbers - because victims

often make reports at more than one NGO - she said the rise was still significant.

It's unclear whether the jump reflects a growth in incidents or increasing awareness

about reporting procedures, she said.

Either way, the study shows that a significant amount of Cambodian children are exposed

to rape and sexual abuse.

For the survey, researchers confidentially interviewed 1,314 children from four different

areas: an urban slum community in Phnom Penh, a rural community in Kampot province,

a provincial town in Kampong Cham province and the border town of Pailin. More than

half (63.8 percent) of the children surveyed said they knew a child who had been

raped; nearly one quarter (23.5 percent of boys and 21.4 percent of girls) said they'd

witnessed the rape of a child by an adult.

"We live in a violent society," Pilorge said. "People treat children

like possessions instead of individuals. You can do anything you want to a possession."

Those in the field have differing opinions on how long sex abuse has been prevalent

in Cambodia. But most agree that violent aftershocks of the Khmer Rouge period have

contributed to its spread.

"Before 1975, I've never heard of the rape of very small children," said

Kasun Baunat, director of the national program for mental health. "Since the

start of war, people have become more aggressive and lost their morality."

Pilorge said she didn't consider child rape to be such a new phenomenon.

"It happened in the 50s and 60s and it's happening now," she said.

But abuse can take different forms, depending on age, gender and situation. Psychiatrists

said they divide child rapists into two categories: predatory and opportunistic perpetrators.

The latter generally rape teenagers (usually female) and are less sexually dysfunctional.

The former actively seek out very young children, either male or female, and fit

the profile of a classic pedophile.

"Abusers who rape teenagers have fewer psychological problems than those who

rape babies," Baunat said. "A baby doesn't look attractive sexually, but

a teenager can."

Pilorge said that some foreigners who come to Cambodia - even if they originally

had no intention of abusing a child - can fall into the opportunistic category.

"Back in their countries, they wouldn't even think of doing it, but they come

to Cambodia and fall in love with the chaos," she said. "First they go

from brothel to brothel, then some become addicted and go deeper and deeper. One

day, a 14-year-old is no longer taboo."

Such offenders are unlikely to jump from a teenager to a very young child, she said.

That behavior usually requires a person with more entrenched sexual abnormalities.

Psychiatrist Dr. Sotheara Chhim thinks those fixated abusers make up the majority

of adults who assault young boys.

"Those kinds of cases are more related to expats than the local population,"

Baunat agreed. "Among Cambodians, homosexuality is usually between adults."

But the high profile nature of some cases of foreign men abusing boys doesn't mean

the behavior is absent in the local population.

"I don't think the tourist industry develops in isolation - there has to be

a domestic element," Miles said. "Cambodians can blame it all on wicked

tourists instead of confronting it themselves."

He added that aspects of Cambodian culture could serve as precursors to abuse. For

example, it's common for adults to tease a small boy by pulling down the child's

pants and tugging on his penis, Miles said.

"If it's acceptable to make fun of a boy by touching his penis, and you get

someone who already might have a tendency to molest, it gives them an open invitation,"

he said.

Still, foreign pedophiles are notorious for either assaulting street children or

going into rural areas and grooming a family with a child, Pilorge said. In the latter

case, an abuser will first establish trust and then often begin fondling the child,

which the boy or girl can mistake as a sign of affection.

"Because of the exchange and familiarity, people don't think this could be a

bad person," Pilorge said.

Because there has been little awareness raising centered on boys, "many families

can't recognize the signs of abuse [in a male child]," Pilorge said.

"In the cases we've had, even the boys couldn't articulate what had happened

to them," she continued. "They could only describe consequences, like that

it hurt when they went to the bathroom."

Boy victims required direct questions.

"It was obvious no one had told them about sex, or that men could abuse boys,"

Pilorge said.

Cambodian families respond very differently to abuse of boys and girls, which may

cause an under-reporting of assaults on male children. Even when families understand

what has happened to their child, they may be hesitant to come forward, Pilorge said.

Homosexual relations are generally taboo in Cambodia, and rape doesn't have such

drastic cultural implications for men.

"I can't understand the reaction of some families," Pilorge said. "With

women and girls, there's this anguish about lost virginity, what the community will

think. When we've gotten cases of boys, some of the families are almost completely


She described one case Licadho received where a young boy had been raped by a foreigner.

The boy and his family sat on opposite sides of the room, not speaking.

"They didn't comfort him," Pilorge said, "and it was clear he'd been

so hurt."



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