The arrest this week of British paedophile Gordon William Philip has highlighted
the vulnerability of Cambodia's children.Sarah Stephens discovers that
the incidence of child rape is on the rise.
Mao is shaking silently as she cries, her face bowed, her hands frantically scrunching
a piece of paper. Her counsellor runs to get her some tissues, and Mao looks up with
bleary eyes full of pain and anger.
Just minutes ago, she had been describing her dream job - owning her own beauty salon.
She talked animatedly of styling hair, manicures and facials, her excitment is apparent.
She is lively, straightforward, and bright.
But whenever the conversation turns to her life before her new business venture,
the light from her face disappears, and she seems to take on a different persona.
One year ago, Mao was brutally raped and beaten by four men.
She was just 13 years old.
In another counselling room in Phnom Penh, Sonida, 15-years-old, is clutching her
stomach in pain.
Eventually, she asks her counsellor to stop the session, and runs out of the room
to lie down.
Sonida was raped in March by a neighbour whom her family trusted. Her feelings of
guilt and shame were so overpowering that she tried to commit suicide by drinking
a bottle of rat poison.
Her grandmother found her just in time to save her, but two months on, her damaged
intestines are a continual reminder of the terrible trauma she has to deal with.
In Cambodia, as in most countries in the world, the issue of child rape is a deeply
taboo and rarely discussed subject.
Traditional values and family loyalty mean that families will go to extraordinary
lengths to cover up instances of child rape, whether the child has been sold into
prostitution, or has been abused in a domestic situation by a relative or neighbour.
"Under Cambodian tradition, if a girl is raped, it is kept a secret," said
Chantol Oung, Executive Director of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC). "If
you're a girl who does dare to speak out, it's seen as very unusual."
The stories gathered from girls who did dare to speak out are startling, and not
for the faint-hearted:
* Human rights officials and counsellors have recorded cases of children
as young as three years old being raped.
* Experts say it is not uncommon to find that the child is forced to marry
her rapist as a way to salvage the situation - the parents believing that otherwise,
no man would wish to marry such 'soiled goods'.
* In addition, victims regularly contract STDs - at World Vision, for example,
70% of the rape vicitms they counsel have STDs, incluiding 12% with AIDs.
* Victims are usually threatened with violence if they tell of their ordeal.
* Authorities often turn a blind eye to the case if a rapist can provide them
with enough cash, and very few cases ever make it to court.
* Some girls fall pregnant - and in one horrific case, a girl who was impregnated
by her own father was forced to keep the child.
Evidently, with this litany of ills, there is a silent emergency for Cambodia's vulnerable
Laurence Gray, who helps co-ordinate World Vision's Trauma Recovery Program for young
rape and abuse victims, knows this only too well.
"I think [the incidence of child rape] is very high in this country," he
said, citing a broad-ranging awareness of the topic amongst Cambodians.
Chantal Oung from the CWCC agreed, saying that it was a growing phenomenon.
Yet despite the awareness, there is still a dearth of suitable centers or shelters
for victims of child rape; most are geared towards women.
And very few Cambodians are trained to deal with the types of emotional trauma and
behaviour patterns that raped children typically display.
"The children are split between those who want to protect themselves by feeling
likeable and attractive, and so are friendly and responsive, and those who are watchful,
uncertain and tense," said Gray.
"They may have psychosomatic issues like stomach aches, headaches, disturbed
sleep, nightmares and so on."
Suicidal thoughts are also common amongst the children; Sonida is not unusual in
her attempt to kill herself.
Mao also, admits she was so unhappy that she considered suicide.
During counselling sessions, the trauma recovery program found that children regulalry
showed impaired cognitive abilities and emotional response, as well as physical signs
Fifteen percent showed lack of concentration, 18 percent had problems following directions
and 16 percent were absent minded.
Unsurprisingly, 13 percent showed signs of depression, with other noted responses
including helplessness, lack of trust, apathy, 'clingy' behaviour, and mood swings.
Eating disturbances and a strong sense of fear were also prominent responses amongst
The counselling sessions, which take place either with other children or in private,
are designed to help the victims learn how to begin to make sense of their ordeal.
Eventually, children are reintegrated back into the community, either in their original
village or town, or in a new location.
"Having a supportive family is a huge factor [in the success of the rehabilitation],"
"It's also important whether there is stigma or acceptance of the child in the
community as a whole."
Unfortunately, more often than not, the rapist will live in the vicinity of the girl's
home, as is the case with both Sonida and Mao.
Indifferent attitudes from the authorities and lack of information for the families
on how to prosecute, mean that many of the rapists never have to face the consequences
of their actions.
"One of the problems with the legacy of 30 years of war and a breakdown in civil
society is that law and order don't function, and standard social mores and consequences
of actions are not clearly defined or demonstrated," said Gray.
"And of course, they [the rapists] see that they are able to do it, and get
away with it."
Authorites may persuade families to take out-of-court settlements rather than push
for the offender to be tried and jailed.
"Once the families receive a finincial settlement, the victims drop their complaints,"
said Eva Galabru, from human rights group Licadho.
"They don't realise they can get a financial settlement as well as see the offender
go to jail."
According to Mao, who still harbours a hope that her rapist will go to jail, the
police asked her father for 50,000 riel to capture the rapist, who is well known
in the area.
"My father says, do your job, then I will pay you. But of course they don't."
In fact, the rapist himself paid Mao's father $250 to try and stop him from complaining
But the local police then took $130 of that money to cover their 'administration'
Sonida too, has recently filed a complaint at court to try and get her rapist arrested
Yet even if she is successful, she may face yet another painful hurdle.
In cases where there are no witnesses to the crime, the child may be forced to testify
in a court room just meters away from the man who raped her.
Next month, the Cambodian National Council for Children will finally unveil its five
year plan against the sexual exploitation of children, a mammoth project to revolutionise
Cambodia's attitudes towards its children.
There will be separate and detailed programs for prevention, protection, and recovery
and reintegration of abused children, all overseen by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
For Sonida and Mao, the plan is a little too late to save their childhoods.
Yet even these two have hope. Mao is beginning to live out her dream of owning her
own beauty salon with the encouragement of CWCC, who are helping her with her business
And Sonida truly belives that she will see her rapist go to jail.
"I am afraid," she says.
"But I have to do this. This man is still free, and he can do what he did to
me to any other girl. So I want him to go to prison."
Names of victims have been changed.