A sociological interpretation of the bowk phenomenon
I am writing in response to the recent discussions about the role of the Khmer Rouge
in Cambodian history as it pertains to the deviant behavior (ie, gang rape or the
bowk phenomenon) of youth in present-day Cambodia.
Obviously one cannot justify or condone this sexual exploitation of women, and it
is my moral and social responsibility as a woman scholar to address this issue in
its context. The topic has generated a lot of emotion and controversy among stakeholders,
yet there are few substantive explanations.
The controversies surrounding bowk are good in one sense, because the issue highlights
how the nation's tragic past (eg unresolved psychological consequences from the Khmer
Rouge era) can lead to the breakdown of social patterns in today's Cambodia (eg family
and social institutions, juvenile delinquency).
As a sociologist I am interested in studying social problems and through empirical
investigations propose solutions to address these problems. Because there have been
relatively few empirical studies conducted on modern day Cambodia in the context
of linking the past and present social conditions, scholars and stakeholders concerned
with Cambodia's welfare (eg community development workers and policy-makers) fail
to make accurate and qualitative interpretations about the causes and consequences
of today's Cambodian multifaceted socio-cultural-economic-environmental-political
Stress research is one pivotal avenue by which the bowk phenomenon can be examined
in greater detail to help illuminate social ills as a whole. According to my study
on the stress process on the Cambodian student population (Nou, 2002), bowk can be
viewed as symptomatic of a larger national mental health crisis and epidemic affecting
people living in Cambodia, particularly the youth, who have yet to constructively
deal or are currently struggling with the uncertainty surrounding the country's transitional
For instance, some respondents reported that they often turn to commercial sex workers
or seek the companionship of beer girls as a source of social support to deal with
stressful life events. This finding is reflective of the concept of negative coping
styles. Bivariate results showed that students using emotion-focused coping strategies
(ie negative coping styles) had significantly higher levels of overall mental health
symptoms, psychological and somatic symptoms, and lower life satisfaction.
The study cited above investigated the relationship between social structural contexts
(ie gender and social status), stressors (ie negative life events and 'daily hassles'),
mediators (ie social support and coping styles), and stress process outcomes (ie
psychological and somatic symptoms and life satisfaction) in the context of contemporary
The study basically examined the stress process as it affects the lives of the Khmer
college, university, and technical student population (N = 1257) in Cambodia. The
theoretical model guiding the study highlights the manner in which the negative effects
of stressors vary for individuals and social groups, and explains how such variations
may be attributed to individual coping and social support resources.
One major contextual finding shows that the natural response for students to worry
(eg having financial difficulties), monitoring of threat-relevant information (eg
uncertainty about the upcoming election), and tendency to define events as threatening
(eg fear of being robbed or kidnapped), are relevant to their daily realities contributing
to the students' negative psychological consequences and poor quality of life.
Thus, the constant 'worrying' about their threatening situations subject many students
to the "what if ...?" mentality of catastrophic worrying. This then leads
to a vicious cycle of defining more and more threatening outcomes to a potentially
worrying event, thereby its interpretation or perception could be labeled as 'daily
hassles'. As such, the students are especially vulnerable or emotionally reactive
to stressful events (eg political uncertainty).
One other significant finding consistently revealed that both negative life events
and 'daily hassles' (stressors) are strong predictors of poor mental health and low
life satisfaction. The students' concerns were often associated with the realities
of both micro- and macro-level stressors, including the threat of civil unrest, personal
financial difficulties, poor national economy, pollution, and border disputes between
neighboring Southeast Asian countries to name a few. The viewpoints of the students
indicated that stressful events, in particular negative life events, result from
the lack of institutional development and reliability.
In conclusion, what needs to be understood when examining Cambodia's social problems,
such as the bowk phenomenon or other negative developments, is whether or not stakeholders
concerned with the country's welfare should consider empirical evidence as a source
for which to guide productive policy-making decisions.
It is hoped that my study's results will be used as a resource for setting up stress
management policies and to alter the stigma associated with mental health problems.
More specifically, I hope my analysis has shed some light on the controversial bowk
phenomenon and will serve as a model from which to study social problems in Cambodian
- Leakhena Nou, PhD, is Dean of the College of Social Sciences at the University
of Cambodia. This comment piece reflects her own opinion, and not that of the University