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What motivates Khmer youth to gang-rape?

What motivates Khmer youth to gang-rape?

A sociological interpretation of the bowk phenomenon

I am writing in response to the recent discussions about the role of the Khmer Rouge

in Cambodian history as it pertains to the deviant behavior (ie, gang rape or the

bowk phenomenon) of youth in present-day Cambodia.

Obviously one cannot justify or condone this sexual exploitation of women, and it

is my moral and social responsibility as a woman scholar to address this issue in

its context. The topic has generated a lot of emotion and controversy among stakeholders,

yet there are few substantive explanations.

The controversies surrounding bowk are good in one sense, because the issue highlights

how the nation's tragic past (eg unresolved psychological consequences from the Khmer

Rouge era) can lead to the breakdown of social patterns in today's Cambodia (eg family

and social institutions, juvenile delinquency).

As a sociologist I am interested in studying social problems and through empirical

investigations propose solutions to address these problems. Because there have been

relatively few empirical studies conducted on modern day Cambodia in the context

of linking the past and present social conditions, scholars and stakeholders concerned

with Cambodia's welfare (eg community development workers and policy-makers) fail

to make accurate and qualitative interpretations about the causes and consequences

of today's Cambodian multifaceted socio-cultural-economic-environmental-political


Stress research is one pivotal avenue by which the bowk phenomenon can be examined

in greater detail to help illuminate social ills as a whole. According to my study

on the stress process on the Cambodian student population (Nou, 2002), bowk can be

viewed as symptomatic of a larger national mental health crisis and epidemic affecting

people living in Cambodia, particularly the youth, who have yet to constructively

deal or are currently struggling with the uncertainty surrounding the country's transitional


For instance, some respondents reported that they often turn to commercial sex workers

or seek the companionship of beer girls as a source of social support to deal with

stressful life events. This finding is reflective of the concept of negative coping

styles. Bivariate results showed that students using emotion-focused coping strategies

(ie negative coping styles) had significantly higher levels of overall mental health

symptoms, psychological and somatic symptoms, and lower life satisfaction.

The study cited above investigated the relationship between social structural contexts

(ie gender and social status), stressors (ie negative life events and 'daily hassles'),

mediators (ie social support and coping styles), and stress process outcomes (ie

psychological and somatic symptoms and life satisfaction) in the context of contemporary


The study basically examined the stress process as it affects the lives of the Khmer

college, university, and technical student population (N = 1257) in Cambodia. The

theoretical model guiding the study highlights the manner in which the negative effects

of stressors vary for individuals and social groups, and explains how such variations

may be attributed to individual coping and social support resources.

One major contextual finding shows that the natural response for students to worry

(eg having financial difficulties), monitoring of threat-relevant information (eg

uncertainty about the upcoming election), and tendency to define events as threatening

(eg fear of being robbed or kidnapped), are relevant to their daily realities contributing

to the students' negative psychological consequences and poor quality of life.

Thus, the constant 'worrying' about their threatening situations subject many students

to the "what if ...?" mentality of catastrophic worrying. This then leads

to a vicious cycle of defining more and more threatening outcomes to a potentially

worrying event, thereby its interpretation or perception could be labeled as 'daily

hassles'. As such, the students are especially vulnerable or emotionally reactive

to stressful events (eg political uncertainty).

One other significant finding consistently revealed that both negative life events

and 'daily hassles' (stressors) are strong predictors of poor mental health and low

life satisfaction. The students' concerns were often associated with the realities

of both micro- and macro-level stressors, including the threat of civil unrest, personal

financial difficulties, poor national economy, pollution, and border disputes between

neighboring Southeast Asian countries to name a few. The viewpoints of the students

indicated that stressful events, in particular negative life events, result from

the lack of institutional development and reliability.

In conclusion, what needs to be understood when examining Cambodia's social problems,

such as the bowk phenomenon or other negative developments, is whether or not stakeholders

concerned with the country's welfare should consider empirical evidence as a source

for which to guide productive policy-making decisions.

It is hoped that my study's results will be used as a resource for setting up stress

management policies and to alter the stigma associated with mental health problems.

More specifically, I hope my analysis has shed some light on the controversial bowk

phenomenon and will serve as a model from which to study social problems in Cambodian


- Leakhena Nou, PhD, is Dean of the College of Social Sciences at the University

of Cambodia. This comment piece reflects her own opinion, and not that of the University

of Cambodia.


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