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The ugly spectre of rape

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Haunted by memories: Kim Khem, 80, breaks down in tears as she describes the sexual torture she witnessed under the Khmer Rouge regime. Photograph: AFP

The expenditure of money and time by the Royal Government and some non-government organisations on the issue of rape has its main focus on victims and perpetrators.

From the arrest of rape suspects through the resulting court proceedings, sentencing and imprisonment, the process takes a long time.

How much does each of these imprisoned perpetrators cost the national budget? The support services provided to rape victims by various organisations also cost a lot.

Victims are often ashamed when they have to testify in a court whose officials are mostly male. More important, the memory, and the psychological consequences, of rape remain with them for life.  

The growing number of convicted rapists, Cambodian and foreign, also contributes to overcrowded prisons.

Broadly speaking, the authorities’ enforcement of the law is improving. But the National Police website has no annual statistics on rape, just general mentions of cases.

And because rape cases often take a long time to go through the legal system, evidence is sometimes lost.

According to the non-government organisation Ecpat, which monitors sex crimes, there were 658 reported cases of rape in Cambodia in 2011.

The number appears to have declined last year; the prominent NGOs Adhoc and Licadho quote 575 cases, 32 of which involved gang rape.

Rape takes many forms.

It can occur among family members, between relatives, people in the same village, boyfriend and girlfriend, and even one victim and a group of perpetrators — a scenario referred to as gang rape (bauk).

Prostitutes are often subjected to gang rape, but women who are not sex workers — and even foreigners — can also be victims.

An example is the young Australian woman who was allegedly gang-raped by a group of five men in central Phnom Penh in 2006.

Now the authorities are casting doubt on claims that a French tourist was gang-raped and killed in Kampot province recently.

If this did occur, it represents a disturbing trend: killing the victim so she cannot identify the perpetrators.

This is a particularly repugnant form of rape that could easily damage Cambodia’s image and affect the tourism sector.

It should also be noted that last month, the Appeal Court handed down a verdict relating to a gang rape on an 18-year-old girl committed by a group of seven youths in the Teuk Chhou district of Kampot province in 2011.

Even though it’s estimated that two women are raped in Cambodia every day, that’s far fewer than in South Africa, which has more than 150 reported rapes a day — twice as many as India, which has a vastly bigger population.

But every case of rape is one too many.

Researchers and civil-society groups in South Africa are urging women to protest against this culture of sexual violence.

Indian women, meanwhile, are increasingly carrying knives to protect themselves against sexual predators and staging demonstrations demanding that rapists receive the death sentence.

These nation-wide protests come after the rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student aboard a bus in Delhi in December.

What about Cambodia? Why aren’t there big protests against rape like those in India?

Cambodia has a lot of networks — women’s networks, gender networks, men’s networks, youth networks and children’s networks — but there is no united front on issues such as this. Why not?

In short, the rape debate is mostly just theory and hot air, but not much action — much less a solution to this abhorrent crime.

Many Cambodians have the view that gang rape stems from particular factors.

Some blame the supposed deterioration of social morality, alcohol, drug use, easy access to pornography and young women wearing provocative clothing.

Others say rape occurs because the police have closed brothels and cracked down on streetwalkers and the provision of sexual services, preventing men releasing their pent-up sexual desire.

Some claim it’s because rapists have the influence, and the money, to bribe police and courts and escape prosecution.

Still others blame ineffective implementation of village and commune safety programs in some regions.

Psychologists, meanwhile, are pondering whether decades of terror, conflict, bloodshed and dislocation in Cambodia have had a profound effect on this country’s people that manifests itself in violence against others.

But if we persist in trying to find an elusive root cause, rather than civil society and the Royal Government working together to find a real solution, the campaign against sexual violence will not be effective and the spectre of rape will tarnish our nation’s image.  

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