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U.N. Agrees to Address Sexual Harassment Issue

U.N. Agrees to Address Sexual Harassment Issue

An open letter to UNTAC chief Yasushi Akashi outlining the "unaccept-able behavior

of some male UNTAC personnel" has prompted UNTAC to agree to set up a special

office to handle sexual harassment complaints, enforce a "code of conduct"

among UNTAC per-sonnel, and provide education about sexually transmitted diseases.

Signed by more than 150 people, the letter was sent to Akashi after he convened a

meeting with nongovernmental organizations on Sept. 26.

Many in attendance at that meeting were stunned when Akashi seemed to brush off concerns

raised about drunken behavior and sexual misconduct by U.N. soldiers-particularly

with local women.

Akashi reportedly said that "18-year-old, hot-blooded soldiers" on R&R

in Phnom Penh had a right to have a few drinks and enjoy the "young, beautiful

beings of the opposite sex."

Kim Leval, office manager for Holt International, said she had thought of writing

a letter to Akashi even before the meeting because of sexual harassment she has suffered

in Phnom Penh from UNTAC soldiers.

"I thought if this happens to me, think what Khmer women have to face,"

Leval said. "After 13 years of war, people feel afraid. There's no place for

them to go, no support if they want to say no. And now they have another form of

harassment: UNTAC."

After getting wind of the letter-published in this issue of the Phnom Penh Post-U.N.

staff initiated a series of meetings with a group of men and women working in Phnom

Penh, including Jim Noonan from Maryknoll, Linda Hartke from Church World Service,

and Sarah Newhall from PACT.

UNTAC Acting Press Spokesperson Eric Berman described the meetings as "frank

and very fruitful."

"They've established a working group and have agreed to continue to meet to

come up with solutions," he said. "The issue has been dealt with the seriousness

with which it deserves-it's a high agenda item."

Akashi, who is out of the country, was unavailable for comment on the letter, which

was faxed to him in New York City by his staff.

Those who met with UNTAC said they were pleased with the prompt response both within

UNTAC and from those who wanted to sign the letter.

"It's unprecedented to have NGOs, Cambodian nationals, and UNTAC united around

enforcement of a code of conduct," said Newhall. "This could be a model

for future U.N. peacekeeping missions."

Stressing the urgency of the issue, Newhall added, "Sexual misconduct and unprotected

sex is a life and death issue today in a world with AIDS. Experts say the spread

of AIDS in Cambodia is now equal to that of Thailand."

Hartke said, "UNTAC has taken a very productive first step in agreeing to set

up an office, hire an ombudsperson, and start a health education campaign."

"Those who raised the issue had no interest in taking any action that makes

it difficult for UNTAC's mission to succeed," Hartke added. "Our ultimate

intention is to see UNTAC succeed-but in a way that demonstrates respect for Cambodian

and expatriate women."

An expatriate Cambodian woman working for a U.N. agency in Phnom Penh, who asked

not to be named, said she was glad to hear about UNTAC's response.

"I've seen things [UNTAC] has done to Cambodian women with my own two eyes,"

said the woman, who said she herself has been sexually harassed by a "high level"

UNTAC staffperson, who she said raped an employee of his.

Because of her years living abroad, the woman said, she's learned to be assertive

and strong. "But I might not be as strong if I didn't have a good-paying job,"

she said. "Women feel afraid to say no. Sometimes they feel pressure that they

may lose their job."

The woman said she has been able to fend off the man's advances, but the other woman

was not so lucky.

"Because she has no money, she went to the restaurant with him a couple of times

and one night he drank a lot. He said he could not drive, so he let her drive. She

drove him to his house, where she slept on the couch because she had no way to get

home.

"About 2:00 in the morning he came out from his room and raped her. She knows

she cannot complain because he is her boss."

"UNTAC should do something about this kind of thing-if just to warn the women,

and tell them their rights," the woman continued. "They need a place where

they can go 24 hours a day. UNTAC needs to punish [men who commit sexual violations]

severely."

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