Officials, and the country at large, must take a stronger stand against rape
Photo by: Heng Chivoan
Pung Chhiv Kek, founder of the rights group Licadho, speaks at a press conference last month marking the release of an Amnesty
International report on rape in Cambodia
When meeting with dozens of rape victims in Cambodia late last year, I was struck by the loneliness of those women and girls in their struggle to cope and to seek justice.
Several of them told me how difficult it had been to tell anyone about the crime, even parents or other family members. Shame and perceived loss of dignity often stand in the way of pursuing assistance and justice, and so does fear.
In almost all cases of rape I came across during my research for the report Breaking the Silence – Sexual Violence in Cambodia, which Amnesty International released on International Women’s Day, the perpetrator had threatened to harm or even kill the victim if she told anyone what had happened. Such threats linger in the minds of victims, and against a backdrop of widespread shortcomings and distrust in the criminal justice system, they continue to haunt them.
Impunity perpetuates violence
Far too often, perpetrators remain at liberty, while victims struggle to cope with the trauma and fear in the aftermath of the crime.
Many victims stay in long-term shelters – away from their homes and loved ones – in order to hide from their attackers , who often bribe their way out of a police investigation and any judicial process.
Impunity of this kind has ramifications beyond the individual victim and her family. It signals that rape in general is acceptable. And it also indicates that the misconduct of public officials that leads to impunity in the first place – corruption, discrimination, nonresponsiveness and lack of accountability – is acceptable too.
Only the Cambodian authorities can bring about change within the government and authority structures – and they need to do so now. To address the massive shortcomings in the system is a tall order and will take time, but some steps cost very little beyond political will and should be taken immediately.
First, the government should condemn sexual violence against women, explicitly and forcefully, saying that it is absolutely unacceptable.
Second, they should discipline police who broker illicit out-of-court payments, court clerks who request bribes to do their jobs, judges who take money to reach a certain verdict or prosecutors who do not pursue cases because the defendant or his family paid them not to.
The government should make public the disciplinary measures it takes, which will act as a deterrent and foster awareness about what is unacceptable behaviour.
Authorities are not the only individuals who must play a role in supporting victims of sexual violence. Every Cambodian should try to combat sexual violence against women and girls.
Bullying and harassment of rape victims, and at times their families, are widespread. In interviews, many girls told me they had stopped going to school because of bullying.
Several women had to move from their village because neighbours or even family members ostracised them.
Rapists cause rape
Gossip and rumours about perceived faults of victims – the way they dress or talk, the fact that they were outside late at night, or simply how they were not considered “good” – does further damage to rape victims.
Rape signifies an absence of a true and freely given agreement to engage in sexual acts – regardless of the length of the victim’s skirt or whether she was singing karaoke.
The perceived morality of the victim does not “cause” rape; the rapist does. And that is the bottom line and what should cause outrage.
Bullying and stigmatising rape victims are worldwide phenomena that aggravate their trauma.
Such behaviour is a social poison that makes victims even more unwilling to report the violence perpetrated against them. As a result, it leads to more impunity, not less – which in turn leads to more rape.
The highest levels of government must show political will and lead the way by supporting victims of sexual violence to break the silence.
Brittis Edman is Cambodia researcher for Amnesty International, which issued the report Breaking the Silence – Sexual Violence in
Cambodia in March.