Sexual abuse towards children in Cambodia is not only high, it's now growing, officials say.
A Licadho representative holds up the portrait of an 11-year-old girl raped and killed in Kampong Cham in February. SOVANN PHILONG
ON February 13, two six-year-old girls were raped by a 43-year-old man in Banteay Meanchey province. The victims, who were cousins, lived in the same village as Lorn Lun, who attacked them at Preah Punlea lake in the province's Serei Sophoan district, just 300 metres from their house.
Despite a dearth of reliable data, government officials and civil society groups say instances of reported child sex abuse, including child rape, are on the increase. Lorn Lun has been charged with rape and is currently in pretrial detention, pending further investigation.
But prosecutions and convictions are not the norm: Weak or corrupt law enforcement and entrenched social attitudes mean that child sex abuse is under-reported and, if it is, frequently goes unpunished.
"We have heard from local police, telling us directly that they help rapists [escape prosecution] in order to get financial benefits to supplement their low salaries," Eng Chhun Han, a Licadho coordinator in Pursat, told the Post.
"[Police] say they have many strategies to help rapists escape punishment, like trying to persuade or threaten victims not to complain to the court, or telling them it is a waste of time and it will damage their reputation," he said, adding he had noticed an increase in reported instances of child rape, and rape generally, since around 2005, which he felt could be attributed to rising corruption and impuntiy.
He described a case in which an underage victim in Pursat province was allegedly raped in October by a man from the same village. The man was sent to court for further investigation, but was only detained until January, after which he was released without trial.
"Corruption like this amongst local police and court officials means that [perpetrators] are not afraid of repeating the same crime again," he added.
Social attitudes also play a part, said Am Sam Ath, a monitoring supervisor for Licadho.
"Some men think that when they have sex with young girls it makes them live longer and get stronger," he said.
Majority of rape is child rape
Across the country in 2008, Adhoc recorded 419 cases of rape, the majority of which - some 280 - were rapes against minors.
Cambodian law defines a minor as under 15, Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, told the Post. An adult's sexual intercourse with a minor is defined as statutory rape based on the principle that a child is not capable of consent and that any apparent consent by a child is not considered to be legal consent, he added.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Cambodia is a signatory, requires states to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. This includes outlawing the coercion of a child to perform sexual activity, the prostitution of children and the exploitation of children in creating pornography.
But the government admits it is struggling to even understand the scale of the problem, let alone address it.
"It is very hard for me to evaluate whether rape cases have increased or not ... but according to information we collect from the Khmer newspapers, rape against minors has increased each year, and is becoming more brutal," Chou Bun Eng, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior said.
She said the ministry has just started to collect their own data for the first time; however, the newspaper system was still the only regular data they had.
Ket Marady, head of the Ministry of Women's Affair's Legal Prevention Department, said Wednesday that according to newspaper reports, there were 186 cases of rape in 2007, 127 of which were of minors. The 2008 statistics, she said, had not yet been tallied.
"Our ministry only has statistics based on reports in the three local newspapers that report across the country. It is not a national standard, only basic data that we can use to intervene when we see some irregularities," she said.
Statistically, the problem is actually decreasing, said Lim Mony, program officer for Adhoc's statistics department. However, she said this was only due to a change in reporting methods.
"Although statistics released recently indicate a decrease, this is mainly because the government and NGOs now work separately to record the number of reports," she told the Post Wednesday.
Lim Mony said child rape was committed "mainly by relatives and neighbours, especially in the countryside where people don't have as much access to education", and that "very few" strangers committed child rape, suggesting that high-profile pedophile cases involving foreigners were in fact in the minority.
Root causes not addressed
Dr Ken Wilcox, who runs a psychology practice in Phnom Penh, said the root causes of rape and rape against minors is the "same as it would be in the West: opportunity, aggression, sexual suppression (societal issues), revenge, anger, externalisation of internal struggles" like depression or loss.
However, he believed groups working with the issue in Cambodia, unlike the West, neglected societal and long-term psychological issues - such as coping mechanisms for victims and isolation problems for the perpetrators - for more immediate relief of the situation.
"[The current approach] is not affecting the root cause of the social construction. It is not dealing with the underlying issues of both the individual and society. It is only trying to work on the problem after," he said.
"NGOs, etc, provide shelter and care and possible training for the women. Admittedly, this is an important part to treatment, but ... little work on the social issues that have now stripped this woman of her future [is being done]," he added.
Bith Kimhong, director of the Ministry of Interior's Anti-human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department, said the government had begun prosecuting and arresting more people this year in relation to child rape.
"In the last two months, we have arrested seven suspects, including three US citizens, one Canadian and one German," he said. However, he added that the people who commit child rape were "mostly Cambodian men".
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MOM KUNTHEA