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The unsolved rape and murder of a young woman leaves a Phnom Penh community shaken

Women in Phnom Penh Thmey village say they are living in fear after their 27-year-old neighbour was raped and murdered as she walked home from work last Thursday night along the railroad tracks.
Women in Phnom Penh Thmey village say they are living in fear after their 27-year-old neighbour was raped and murdered as she walked home from work last Thursday night along the railroad tracks. Daphne Chen

The unsolved rape and murder of a young woman leaves a Phnom Penh community shaken

Chhun Momsoksivutha’s friends used to warn her not to walk home alone at night. The road to the young woman’s apartment was dark, and it lay along a railroad track known as a hotspot for drugs and sex work.

“I have no beauty for them to rape,” Momsoksivutha would dismissively respond, friends said. “And I have no money for them to kill for.”

On Thursday, the 27-year-old dishwasher went missing after she finished cleaning up at a wedding venue around midnight on Thursday. After a frantic search, neighbours found her partially clothed body hidden underneath a concrete structure by the side of the railroad, not far from her house.

Four days later, Momsoksivutha’s rape and murder remains unsolved. Meanwhile, women in this village in Phnom Penh Thmey commune say they have been so shaken by the incident that they are making plans to build fences around their homes and have forbidden their daughters to go out in the evenings.

“We feel unsafe now,” said Thong Bunna, who employed Momsoksivutha. “We still do not understand why they killed her. Every night I go to sleep, I still think about it.”

Bunna said she has since banned her daughter from going out with friends at night and has her older brother take her to school.

A gentle woman who spent her mornings packaging invitations for weddings and her nights working as a cleaner at them, Momsoksivutha wanted to quit her night job but was struggling under crippling poverty, friends said.

Muong Chanthavy, who worked with Momsoksivutha making wedding invitations, said police rarely patrolled the neighbourhood.

“We ask the authorities not to turn a blind eye to our security,” said Chanthavy, adding that she once warned her friend that if someone tried to sexually assault her, she should not resist.

Gender advocates, however, have long called on officials to do more to make the city safer for women rather than burdening them with dealing sexual assault on their own. Kourn Chanthevy, a women’s rights team leader at ActionAid Cambodia, said city officials should improve street lighting and public patrolling in target areas.

She also emphasised that young women should not be victim-blamed.

“Rather than telling our daughters to stay indoors, we should tell our sons to behave themselves and respect women,” Chanthevy said in a message. “By further restricting and controlling women’s behaviour, we entrench sexist attitudes, we limit young women’s opportunities and we put the blame on survivors of rape for not having ‘done enough’ to protect themselves.”

Kasumi Nakagawa, a professor of gender studies at Pannasastra University, also called for better street lighting and said police must take such a case seriously.

“If such a case happens, make sure the perpetrator is arrested,” Nakagawa said.

Police suspect at least two people were involved in the attack, but Phnom Penh Thmey Commune Police Chief Sieng Soeun said yesterday that investigators are “not clear yet” about the involvement of the three suspects who were arrested.

“We loved each other like family,” said 35-year-old neighbour Sokun, who would only give her first name. “We want to see the perpetrator because we want to see the heart of the man who could be cruel enough to do this.”

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