The construction of huts for the Kreung minority’s teenage girls, so that they can engage in premarital sex, has long been ingrained in its culture. Emily Wight travelled to Ratanakiri and found the custom to be something almost completely of the past.
It’s nearing sunset on a Friday evening in the dry season, and in the village of Tang Kamal in Ratanakiri, women gather by the well to bathe and collect water. Cooling off from a long day of farming, they try to avoid tripping over the pigs, dogs and chickens that scarp around at their feet.
When the sun sets, many of these women will sleep with their families in their homes. But some of the teenage girls will be an exception. It is a tradition in the Kreung minority, scattered in 27 villages around Ratanakiri’s Ochum District, to build girls their own private huts when they hit puberty. The idea of these huts, or “girl’s houses”, as they are referred to by the communities themselves, is that girls can have the space and opportunity to invite boys over, get to know them, and have sex with them if they want to.
Yang Na is 16, and her parents built her a girl’s house when she was 13 years old. She sleeps alone, and if a boy pays her a visit, she will decide whether or not she wants to let him in. Sometimes they stay up all night talking. It’s entirely up to her, she said, and she feels very much in control: “I have the power to sleep with a boy if I want, but if I don’t like him, I always say no, and he goes away.”
The Kreung community value premarital sex, she said, because it is a way of proving to parents that a boy and a girl love each other. She added: “If we have sex and we are sure we love each other, and so are our parents, then we can get married.”
Tang Kamal is 7km north of the provincial capital of Banlung, and is home to 100 Kreung families. Their survival depends on the farming of land more than a 10km walk away, through dense forest, and the growth of cashew nuts that they then sell in the markets. There is no electricity or running water, and the nearest health centre is in a different village 3km away. A large number of Kreung would rather practice traditional medicine, according to a local NGO.
But Tang Kamal stands out in particular from other Kreung villages. It is one of the only villages that still builds huts for its teenage girls. The custom is disappearing as the minority becomes exposed to modernisation and Khmer culture. Families can also afford to build bigger houses, and parents are increasingly choosing to create a room inside the house for their daughters rather than to build them a new hut.
According to Jan Noorlander, program co-ordinator of the marginalised and ethnic minorities program at CARE Cambodia, Kreung people are now able to construct bigger, sturdier houses due to economic development and improved livelihoods. He said: “Their traditional houses are much smaller, but they also have to be rebuilt every year because they are bamboo, and they get damaged in the rainy season. Building a bigger, timber house is much more practical.”
Khoun Roeun is deputy community chief at Laork village, home to at least 150 Kreung families. According to Roeun, parents used to build huts for both teenage boys and girls, but about two years ago, they took them down in favour of giving them a room inside the house instead.
He said: “Before, this community practiced this old custom – parents would make girl’s and boy’s houses. But based on experience, there were too many problems, like the girl becoming pregnant with no husband, or boys fighting over girls.”
Parents still allow their daughters to have premarital sex, he said, but if a girl sleeps under the same roof, they can have more control over who she is spending the night with. He added: “Sometimes parents would worry that the girl was sleeping with too many boys, but now they can regulate who she is sleeping with.”
Naoung Tien, 53, also from Laork, said the custom disappeared in her village after the Pol Pot regime. She was just a child when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and remembers being sent away to work elsewhere in Ratanakiri. When she returned, she said, girl’s houses were a thing of the past: “There were huts in 1975, but I remember when I came back there weren’t any more.”
She added that along with her late husband, she constructed separate rooms in her house for her daughters when they were growing up, and allowed them to bring boys back. She said: “It’s OK for girls to sleep with boys if they love each other, and if the parents meet and approve.”
There are subtle differences in customs between each Kreung community. Kala village, for example, is 20 km from Banlung. Like the other villages, the only sounds are the squawks of chickens, the laughter of children and the odd bark from a dog.
Here there are both girl’s and boy’s houses, the decipherable difference being that the latter is built on higher stilts. But they’re no longer used to fit the traditional purpose, according to 70 year old Ravee.
She said that she and her husband built a hut for their daughter, who got married before she had the opportunity to use it. Perched on the edge of that same structure, Ravee, her traditional jewellery the only thing covering the top half of her body, shuffled between the inside of the hut, where she was minding a bubbling stove, and out. Since their daughter married, her and her husband have used the hut to store their pots and pans. Underneath, three sleeping pigs basked in the shade.
Ravee said that Kala’s residents are also building bigger houses, some even made of brick. There is no longer a need for a separate building, but like in Laork village, girls will sleep in a separate room in their family home.
She continued: “For our community, it’s normal to have sex before getting married, but now the girl’s parents can get to know the boy because he can stay with them for a few days. They can investigate the boy’s background, ask the village if he is from a good family, or if he is a lazy farmer. It’s always important that the boy works hard.”
Rape has never been a problem for Ravee’s community, she said – despite the increased vulnerability of a woman alone in a house. There are no statistics, but, Ravee continued: “Our tradition says that if a boy has sex with a girl by force, he gets fined by the village chief, who will take away livestock from his parents. Boys are usually very scared of this, so they won’t have sex with a girl unless she agrees.”
She added: “The girl is the one who makes the decisions – the girl decides whether or not she will sleep with the boy, and later she will decide whether or not she will marry him. She is in control.”
Kraes village, about 10km further from Banlung down a winding dirt road that coats a layer of dust on everything in its wake, has also got rid of its girl’s house tradition. Twelve-year-old Tuot said that her parents already decided not to build one for her because they have a well-built house. A young couple put the final touches to what looked very much like a girl’s house – but they claimed they were building it for storage. Recently married 18-year-old Suri, who is from another Kreung village and moved here for her husband, said that even in her village, the practice is dying out.
Aum Seaynng, who prefers to be referred to as Jammy, is a sales manager at Parrot Tours, a trekking company that organises homestays with indigenous minority groups. He has more than eight years’ experience of trekking in the local area, but the last time he came to Kraes was a couple of years ago. He was surprised to see how things had changed: “Right here there were girl’s houses, and now there aren’t any – I’m surprised people have quit this tradition,” he said.
He continued: “Now they are richer, they can afford a bigger house, and they have rooms inside the house – not like before when everyone slept together.”
Jammy predicted that as Kreung people become more exposed to Khmer culture, they will begin to look down on premarital sex.
According to Sarim Heang, executive director at the community development organisation CANDO Cambodia, this is already happening. Kreung villages used to be cut off from the rest of society, which enabled them to preserve their traditions. But now, he said, they have access to Khmer culture through TV and radio. He said: “They know that according to Khmer culture, it’s not good to have sex before marriage. They also go to Cambodian schools, where teachers will educate them according to mainstream society.”
Noorlander emphasised that change in indigenous customs has to come from the people themselves. He said: “Communities themselves will make decisions on what changes they want to have, or they will determine if they want to stay a certain way.
Indigenous people are undergoing changes, but so are Khmer people, and it’s very important that people are in charge of their own change.”
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong