It finally happened. Up until this point, I had experienced varying degrees of surprise, anger, disgust, horror, outrage, depression, hopelessness and a sense of injustice when being confronted with daily reminders of Cambodia’s dark side: her tragic past and poverty-stricken present. Call me jaded, but I hadn’t experienced outright shock.
I mean, I had visited The Killing Fields and felt depressed and somber at being surrounded by the mass graves of some 8,000 men, women and children and cringed when I saw the blood on the bark of a tree that babies’ heads were smashed against. I felt the same kind of emotions at Tuol Sleng Prison (now a museum) where 18,000 people had been tortured and executed.
I was horrified when I saw one of the little girls at one of the centers I teach at – her father threw acid on her face and body and now all her skin is burnt, melted away and she has disfigurement, severe scarring and must wear a hat at all times. Then there is another little one, a new recruit who is so malnourished you can count her ribs and who is suffering from myriad diseases. If the organisation hadn’t found her, she would’ve been dead in weeks.
Then there was the news that my fellow volunteer, a banker from Paris was attacked when riding her bike out in the provinces. The young men threw her off her bike and stole her money and passport, leaving her stranded, bleeding with nothing. That was close to home. As was the news several days ago that a French woman had been found floating in a river, dead and naked with severe head injuries in a location that I was in only a week prior. These incidences were disturbing, but not shocking.
So, here I am teaching my class of eight first-year university students. We are talking about Valentine’s Day and its significance in Cambodia. We read an article written by a Cambodian about how the special day has been misinterpreted by young Cambodians as a day to be ‘promiscuous’ and have sex (on the surface, Cambodians are supposed to wait until marriage, but it seems the reality is different), rather than a time to show your appreciation and love for your friends and family.
There is a line in the article about how a significant percentage of young men want to engage in Bauk, or gang rape. I asked my students about this notion. One of the girls then says, “It’s when the man takes his girlfriend or another girl to a hotel and then other men are there too, his friends, and they rape the woman. It’s so common. And they tell her that if she tells anyone, he will kill her.” The other students nod, confirming her explanation.
I proceed to pick my jaw up off the floor.
The drive home is grim and then I make matters worse by googling ‘Cambodia’ and ‘Rape’. I learn about this disconcertingly common practice of Bauk in which a man buys a prostitute for a night, takes her to a hotel or elsewhere where his friends are waiting to attack her and then proceed to gang rape her for as long as she is conscious. He pays her the same rate as he would if it was just him, then all the friends split the cost (the woman would cost about $15 for one night).
It happens with ordinary young women too – some tricked into going to a hotel with a guy they meet at a club and then ambushed by up to 10 of his friends, some girls are grabbed off the street, and some even do it to their girlfriends.
The BBC, CNN and various human rights groups have reported on the shockingly common instances of rape in Cambodia and tried to pry the lid off this taboo subject. I feel a degree of denial – I mean, these guys, they’re so physically small, timid, shy, passive and sweet. But then again, this is a culture that killed over a million of their own in one of the most brutal genocides the world has ever seen. Still, there is a disconnect.
The really terrifying part in all of this is that the victims HAVE NO RIGHTS. Even with evidence, the police are generally corrupt and lazy and don’t really care, especially in a society where men rule and the law is subjective and never enforced. Anecdotal reports state that they’re in on it too. It’s a growing trend amongst the new middle class and the rich – if you have money to pay off authorities, you can bribe your way out of anything, even really violent recreational activities that involve destroying the lives of others.
Now I understand why some of the older students at the organisation are making a documentary about incest and fathers raping daughters. Now I understand why women never go out alone after dark. It’s the ever-present threat nobody wants to acknowledge. Victims from villages in the provinces have to leave as they are shamed and ostracized. Victims fear for their lives if they ever speak out. And even if they do, who in a position of authority or power is going to care?
And then, there is outrage over Valentine’s Day and an effort curb ‘teenage lust.’ As stated in the Phnom Penh Post:
Chea Cheath, director of the Phnom Penh municipal department of the Ministry of Education, said he had asked police to crack down on flower sellers outside schools and urged parents to ensure their children were not doing the “wrong things”.
“We also announced to all school directors in Phnom Penh to tell their teachers to educate their students about the true meaning of Valentine’s Day,” he said. “It is a day for us to stop violence, especially violence against girls and women.”
One token day a year to consider violence against women and girls is really a drop in the ocean. A culture that values and promotes chastity yet tolerates rape is in dire need of more than some half-assed policing of teenagers on Valentine’s Day. As long as the justice and legal system remain broken, as long as corruption reigns, and as long as women are silenced, rape will remain a fact of life for females in Cambodia.