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Cambodia’s young rapists

The mother of a teen girl who committed suicide after being raped, allegedly by her father, prays at a funeral ceremony in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district last year.
The mother of a teen girl who committed suicide after being raped, allegedly by her father, prays at a funeral ceremony in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district last year. Hong Menea

Cambodia’s young rapists

When Bunly* learned that both his daughters had been raped by a close friend, he hounded the authorities in Preah Sihanouk for intervention.

“I was devastated for my daughters when I heard they were raped,” he said yesterday, two years after his 15-year-old reported the rape to him. When Bunly went to warn his younger daughter, he made the agonising discovery that she too had been raped by the same friend a year earlier at the age of 11.

“I filed complaints to the court for both cases, but the cases were dropped and the suspect lives freely,” Bunly said, adding that the suspect – though arrested – had been released on bail immediately.

“My complaint is now at the Appeal Court, but I don’t know when they expect to hold a hearing. Until I die, I will not abandon trying to find justice for my daughters.”

The odds are not particularly in Bunly’s favour. One in five Cambodian men have committed rape, but more than 44 per cent of them have never faced any legal consequences, according to a UN report released yesterday. And, while almost half were arrested, barely 28 per cent wound up imprisoned, the report continues, citing “cultural acceptance and impunity” as key reasons that violence against women remains rampant.

Though Cambodia has long struggled to combat rape, work has been arguably hampered by a lack of reliable data. The UN report, which drew on three years of interviews with more than 13,000 men and women in six countries, is the most comprehensive survey ever published and will be used to inform a range of preventative programs set to be launched in the coming years.

In Cambodia, researchers carried out interviews with more than 2,000 Cambodian men and women on their attitudes towards and histories of violence, giving a rare, overarching look at how and why men commit violence against women.

The report sheds light on the role past abuses may play – a little-explored topic in Cambodia. Forty-five per cent of Cambodian men reported having experienced some form of physical abuse as a child; 15 per cent were sexually abused. “There are strong associations between men’s own experiences of violence and their use of violence,” the report notes.

Cambodian rapists on the whole are strikingly young. Most committed their first rape at a far younger age than other men in the region – nearly 16 per cent committed the crime when under the age of 15; more than half were younger than 20.

Teenagers who allegedly gang raped a young woman exit Phnom Penh’s Municipal Court earlier this year.
Teenagers who allegedly gang raped a young woman exit Phnom Penh’s Municipal Court earlier this year. Vireak Mai

“We see a lot of young people [in Cambodia] perpetrating violence and a lot of examples of men trying to prove their manhood through sexual violence,” said James Lang, a program coordinator at Partners for Prevention – the Bangkok-based joint UN program behind the report.

Indeed, 45 per cent of men who had reported having raped said they had done so out of “sexual entitlement”. Forty-two per cent committed the crime out of “anger/punishment”.

Because of the unprecedented scale of the surveys, development agencies and the government are hopeful that they can be used to tailor more effective prevention programs, Wenny Kusuma, country representative at UN Women, said.

“It allows us to understand much more the dynamics that play into why some men commit violence and look into how to prevent it,” she said.

Based on the study’s findings (a more comprehensive, Cambodia-specific analysis is expected to be launched later this year), pilot programs funded by Australia and crafted by the government, UN agencies and aid agencies will be launched in the near future.

“It really needs to be tailored to Cambodia,” Kusuma said.

“If [sexual assault] is exacerbated by attitudes of entitlement or alcohol abuse, you want to tailor prevention efforts. Violence when perpetrated is usually not perpetrated only once. It tends to be perpetrated over time. So police intervention is a big part of the response.”

Lang, who has been helping design the programs, said specifics were still being finalised but that they would seek to address each point of contact.

“We know working with young people in school on attitudes toward relationships and gender can help change practices later. But we also know you need community awareness about general tolerance for abuse. We need local leaders to take the issue seriously and help implementation of national laws,” he said. “We’re looking for a coordinated prevention package.”

Asked whether anything stood out about the Cambodian findings, Lang said it was “overall, very average in the region and in the world”.

“There’s nothing extraordinary, except the issue of gang rape and sexual violence is more common in Cambodia than in other places. That’s the one thing that we think we can help make a dent in and help reduce.”

All told, 20.8 per cent have committed rape at least once. But more than five per cent of Cambodian men have committed gang rape, higher than the regional average of 3.9 per cent.

Local rights groups, however, suggest Cambodia may be exceptional in one other regard: child rape. The UN report did not present findings on victims’ ages, but Lang said the Cambodia country report may include that level of detail.

Figures would likely have major implications for programs in Cambodia, which have had little apparent success in cracking down on the brutal crime.

For Nov*, however, whose 11-year-old daughter was raped three years ago, it is simply time to move on.

“We moved from Prey Veng. I would not allow my daughter to live there anymore because I am worried about her security and I do not want her to be reminded of the past,” she said yesterday, speaking from her Phnom Penh home.

The girl was raped by her grandfather, who threatened to kill her if she uttered a word. When a neighbour told Nov what she suspected had happened, she confronted her daughter, who said the 66-year-old had attacked her as she collected wood in a nearby forest.

“The police could not arrest him, because by then he had fled. He’s working in Thailand now,” she said. “I still hope that one day my daughter will get justice.”

*The family names of interviewees were removed to protect victims’ identities.

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