ALTHOUGH her four-day visit was mainly taken up with political wrangling with the
government, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson had other, lower-profile
items on her agenda.
Between meetings with the Prime Ministers, other government officials and fellow
human rights advocates, Robinson also visited a provincial court and prison, women's
and children's rights NGOs, and a women's shelter.
"She was very supportive to me and to our center," said Cambodian Women's
Crisis Center (CWCC) executive director Chanthol Oung. "She said she had a very
important role to fight against violence against women."
Robinson said she intends to make women's issues a priority throughout her mandate.
She said she was "very concerned" about violence against women in Cambodia,
and talked to several women at the shelter about their experiences.
"She asked how I was mistreated, but I choked up ... I was too emotional to
talk much," said a sweet-faced 19-year-old, previously sold for $100 to a brothel
in Kampong Som.
Another woman, slender and elegant, said: "I was happy to meet Mary Robinson.
She asked why I was here, and I told her it was because my husband beat me."
She eventually left him and got a court order against him for their children and
property. But, she said, the order has yet to be enforced.
One out of every six women in Cambodia is a victim of domestic violence, and 17,000
women and children are prostituted or sexually trafficked every year, according to
"Politicians are afraid in Cambodia, but women in Cambodia are afraid too,"
Oung said. She told Robinson that the center had taken in 224 women already in its
first eight months.
"When I looked at her, she [seemed] very, very sad, and frustrated to see and
hear about the issues - she kept shaking her head and said something like, 'terrible,
horrible'," Oung said.
At a Jan 24 press conference, Robinson described her meeting at the shelter with
a 16-year-old who "explained in great detail the horrible circumstances in which
she was kept until she managed to escape after about three months".
That girl said later: "She asked me how I was sold into prostitution. I told
her that I was offered a job at a garment factory, but on the way they stopped at
a house and I was locked in there." She was beaten with an electric wire and
her head repeatedly smashed into a wall.
She escaped by climbing over a toilet wall. Now she is enrolled in literacy training
and will soon start classes to become a seamstress.
"When you hear firsthand the detail of that, and see the eyes, and you see the
attempt to recover human dignity, to recover from the humiliation of that,"
Robinson said, it confirmed her certainty that these issues are important to her.
"Coming here as High Commissioner simply reinforces that commitment."