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Helping Cambodian women take back their lives

Siem Reap

Her hands shake with nerves and her dark, downcast eyes are filled with more shame and hurt than any human being should ever have to endure. Soek Phem, 20, is staying at the Cambodian
Women’s Crisis Centre’s (CWCC) emergency drop-in shelter in Siem Reap town after being twice raped by her employer.

In a situation not uncommon among victims of abuse, she lived and worked with her attacker who lured her to a hotel on two occasions when his wife, a doctor, was at work and forced her to perform sexual acts with him. After the second incident, the rapist’s wife found out about her husband’s assaults but blamed Soek Phem and banished her from the family’s home, leaving her no place to go but the CWCC.

A local NGO, the CWCC is registered with the Royal Cambodian Government’s Ministry of Interior. Its primary purpose is to provide assistance to women like Soek Phem as well as children who are victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and trafficking.

Sitting across a heavy, wooden table, Soek Phem’s long, raven-coloured hair is loosely pulled back into a low ponytail and she is dressed like any other young Cambodian woman: in jeans and a colourful hoodie. Yet it seems doubtful that the vibrancy displayed in her clothes could ever return to her sullen face.

Her case, sadly, is far from unique. The CWCC says it believes that incidences of rape are increasing in Cambodia. As many as 40 percent of women are thought to be affected by domestic violence in some parts of the country, but statistics are hard to come by as many women are either too afraid to
report the abuse or unsure of how to do so.

Social stigma

Compounding an already tragic situation is the ongoing trauma faced by victims of rape and sexual abuse, as they are further stigmatised by societal norms that blame the victim for failing to protect herself, her reputation and that of her

Soek Phem can identify with this fact far too easily. Her mother, after learning of what had happened to her daughter, blamed her and after being offered compensation by the attacker, urged her daughter to take the money rather than seek justice in court.

“I went to the police station to sue the rapist. However, no one there helped me except to advise me to come here to the CWCC. They have helped me file a complaint to the court, but I have no hope to get justice. We have no choice but to withdraw the lawsuit and accept the compensation of about US$500. My mother prefers the compensation,” she said.

Among her mother’s fears could be the fact that victims of rape also find it difficult to marry due to the high value Cambodian society places on a bride’s virginity, thus adding marginalisation and discrimination to her abuse.

Additionally, according to Chap Muon, CWCC’s monitoring superviser, the law relating to rape in Cambodia is often ambiguous and difficult to apply to cases in which the victim is over the age of consent.

Speaking of Soek Phem, Chap Muon, 51, said: “For this case, I don’t believe authorities will consider it to be rape because she is 20 years old, which is not underage. She also agreed to have sex with her employer on two other occasions in addition to the two times she was raped.”

It is clear that the ramifications of social stigmatism, societal pressure and the legal system can make the impact of sexual and physical violence even more tragic for those involved.

In Toap Siem village, Kork Thlokkrom commune, Chi Kreng district in Siem Reap province, 50-year-old Moeurn Tai must learn to deal with the loss of his daughter, Tai Solang, who committed suicide at the age of 30 after being repeatedly beaten and shamed by her husband.

Again, it’s in the eyes – Moeurn Tai’s are flame-red. Although probably caused by a medical condition or simply from the effects of years of working in the harsh Cambodian sun, you’d easily be excused for instead assuming he’d never stopped crying after Tai Solang killed herself about a year ago by ingesting a fatal dose of a poison normally used to kill insects.

The victim’s husband, Orn Ath, 35, began to abuse his wife just a year after the couple married. Moeurn Tai said that much of the violence stemmed from alcohol abuse and a jealous suspicion that his wife was socialising with other men in the

“He asked my daughter for money to buy wine. When she disagreed he hit her. He was an aggressive man. I remember one time he attacked my daughter just a few days after she gave birth. He hurled a kerosene lamp at her. She was afraid of him. If he said no, she wouldn’t even dare visit her sick mother,” he said.

On the night Tai Solang committed suicide, her husband dragged her through their tiny, rural village from one house to another, which resulted in her clothes being torn away from her body.

Chhoeurn Lean, 32, was a neighbour of Tai Solang and was by her side the night her life ended.

“Her family was often affected by domestic violence. On the day she committed suicide, I tried to take the insecticide from her mouth but she told me to just let her die,” she said. Tai Solang was taken to hospital shortly after ingesting the poison but died soon after.

Ath Solean, 14, is the eldest daughter of Tai Solang, vividly remembers the violence inflicted on her mother by her alcohol-addicted father.

“My father got drunk almost every day and caused problems within my family. Nowadays, we face a lot of difficulties because my grandpa and ma are old. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to finish my studies. And up to this day, I have no idea where my father is,” she said.

After the incident, Orn Ath fled the village and has never been seen since, leaving Moeurn Tai and his wife Ting Hem, 50, to care for Tai Solang’s four children. “Although we are not rich, I am determined to feed all of my grandsons and daughters and encourage them to go to school. I am an illiterate person, so I know how difficult life can be without an education,” said Moeurn Tai, sitting on a wooden platform underneath the family’s modest home surrounded by members of his village.

He is able to provide this care thanks in part to support from the CWCC. The organisation provided the family with rice, blankets and other everyday necessities after Tai Solang’s death. But the rations are not ongoing and life has been tough.

“After my daughter’s funeral, the CWCC asked me to send my grandchildren to live there but I refused. I don’t want them to go away. We can live on bread and water together,” said Moeurn Tai.

While physical abuse is common in cases of violence against women, Mao Yin, coordinator for Adhoc in Siem Reap, said that there are various other forms of domestic violence that can be just as damaging to victims and their families.

“Physical and psychological violence happen more than any other form of violence,” she said, adding that economic violence, too, is a major problem in Cambodia. Many women must endure their husbands destroying their property and controlling all of the family’s money. And it is not simply rape that constitutes sexual violence, either. Mao Yin explained that many cases have arisen in which husbands have forced their wives to have sex when they are ill or after they’ve just given birth.

After returning to the CWCC office from visiting another victim, Chap Muon rustles through some papers and outlines a few statistics to better explain the prevalence of violence against women in Cambodia.

A matter of life and death

In 2009, the CWCC was informed of five cases of husbands killing their wives. The fatalities included a woman who was dismembered with an axe, a wife who was stabbed to death and a woman mown down with a tractor. Another was murdered with a cleaver and, in a case similar to Tai Solang’s, a woman committed suicide in response to her husband’s brutality. Hearing these facts, it’s clear that violence against women in Cambodia is a massive issue that will require ardent efforts to alleviate.

Lim Money, head of Adhoc’s women’s section, sums up the problem well. “Domestic violence is not an individual problem; it is on all of our shoulders. Violence against women reduces the effectiveness of a woman’s role in society and makes our society weak because women are an essential element in developing this country. When our nation loses one element like this, it’s like someone losing an arm. We just can’t work well without it.”

The CWCC depends on the support and involvement of over 600 volunteers, without which the organisation would be unable to offer the range of services it does to its clients. One of the main functions the volunteers perform is to conduct training courses on violence against women to men and women in targeted communities. In 2005, Community Safety Net Volunteers helped conduct 524 such courses to over 10,000 villagers. These volunteers also help monitor the level of violence occurring in their own communities, assisting women in finding help through the CWCC and other NGOs.



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