In Battambang City on Wednesday, a 58-year-old mother reported her husband to the police after her 12-year-old daughter revealed that her stepfather had been sexually abusing her, according to police.
The child said her 54-year-old stepfather, had raped her three times and threatened to kill her if she told anyone about it, but when he last raped her on Wednesday, she found the courage to tell her mother, said Ray Sarann, their village chief in Wat Kor commune.
The report of abuse comes the same week the U.N. released a report on violence against women revealing 1 in 5 men have committed rape—many of them very young when they first did so.
The stepfather escaped before police could arrest him but the fact that she reported him does not necessarily reflect the behavior or attitudes of Cambodian women in general.
Although the report did not specify the age of victims, it revealed among the hundreds of women surveyed a worrying perception that violence should be tolerated for the sake of the family, and that sexual violence was not rape unless they fought back—-an opinion voiced by 87 percent of female respondents.
On a street corner in Daun Penh district Thursday, 46-year-old Sum Thal from Kampot province who comes to Phnom Penh to sell rice 10 days a month, said that she was lucky that her husband was a good man, but in rural communities like hers, many women suffered abuse and felt powerless to do anything about it.
“Women in Cambodian society feel they must tolerate violence to keep their families together and to make a good life for their children, but it is even more difficult in the countryside, for if they divorce, they will need to fight very hard to survive,” she said.
“We women don’t like being forced to have sex and we know about women’s rights and laws on domestic violence and there are NGOs we can go to who offer good advice. But when you farm and have only rice? How can you leave your husband?” she said.
Men believing sex is an entitlement, whether for entertainment or to punish someone, combined with women tolerating rape and blaming themselves, has created a culture in Cambodia where sexual violence is normalized, according to Talmage Payne, chief executive of Hagar International in Cambodia.
“It’s common to lose sight of what makes all this possible—a social construct that says men are entitled to sex with impunity and women should tolerate their violence. This is a man’s problem, not just a woman’s,” he said.
It may be a man’s problem too, but it is women who must suffer from it.
In a bar on Street 51 on Thursday, a woman who called herself Ari said that to see evidence of violence against women, you just had to look at the girls around the bar.
“I know many women who have been assaulted—look at our eyes and you can see how it is. It is a shame, but I am poor and I need to survive,” Ari said.
Am Chandavan, Ari’s colleague, said that extremes of wealth and poverty, drug and alcohol use and high levels of aggression among men all contributed to societal problems.
“Women need to understand their rights but it’s more than that, they need to be aware of the situation and their surroundings and about men’s intentions and keep themselves safe,” she said.
Sy Define, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, said that the government accepted there was a problem with rape in Cambodia and that measures to address the issue were being taken.
“We are trying hard to educate not only women but men to understand that a husband needs to respect his wife’s rights and know he cannot rape her—and we are in the process of disseminating and educating about this issue including about laws and punishment,” she said, adding that the government was working with rights groups to come up with a new plan to prevent violence against women.
“It will be difficult to change our tradition of discrimination against women, but we want to change the tradition that when women speak about this, it brings shame.”
Yet it will likely take generations to change that culture and may also require a new determination in government not yet shown, said 19-year-old English student Ngoy Karenka, who wore a T-shirt bearing the message: “This Is Your Destiny, and You Cannot Fight It.”
“Women have a difficult time making their own destiny in Cambodia,” she said, referring to the slogan on her T-shirt.
“Here, man comes first, even at school and I think it may be impossible to change the way they are. Of course I hope change happens, but new policies by this government will not work because they won’t enforce them—they never do.”
(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean)