A 10-year-old girl was raped and strangled to death in the dining hall of a Buddhist pagoda in Prey Veng province on Monday, marking the first child rape-murder to be reported so far this year.
Last year, at least 10 girls younger than 18 years old were raped and murdered throughout the country. The situation was little different in 2011; local rights group Adhoc recorded 13 cases of children raped and then killed by their attackers.
Recent rape-murders in India and South Africa have inspired massive protests and sparked government responses, while the almost monthly rape-murder toll in Cambodia in recent years has warranted little more than a few short stories in the media.
“I think there is a situation where people have become desensitized to the reality,” said David Harding, international training coordinator for the Cambodia-based NGO Friends International.
In a society such as Cambodia, where violent crime and social injustice are commonplace, the rape-murder of children struggles to stand out, Mr. Harding said.
“Also, I think it’s a situation where these kinds of abuses towards children—these horrible abuses against children—get mixed up with very complex and very serious issues and abuses that people face every day in Cambodia.”
And unlike the reaction of the media in India and South Africa, where single cases of rape-murders of young women were on the front pages of newspapers for days following the crimes, Cambodia’s media fail to focus on violence against children and women, Mr. Harding said.
“Within media, the reports of these kinds of horrific crimes are tucked away and often don’t become front-page news,” he added.
Political analyst Chea Vannath agreed that in a society that still suffers from a myriad of social ills, the rape and murder of children struggles to rise above the fray.
“The poverty, the violence, the weak institutions, the weak implementation of the law all contribute to the acceptance of the situation,” she said.
In the absence of any public outcry against the perpetrators of violence against women and children, the country’s courts and law enforcement officials have failed to stamp out the scourge of child rape in Cambodia, according to children’s and women’s rights advocates.
Although the 17-year-old who was arrested for allegedly raping and killing 10-year-old Vorn Srey Leu in the Prey Veng pagoda on Monday night has confessed to his crime, the prosecution of such crimes is still rare, said Chin Chanveasna, executive director of End Child Prostitution, Abuse and Trafficking in Cambodia, a network of child protection NGOs.
“We don’t think that we need to change the law, because the law provides enough protection. We need to improve law enforcement,” he said, noting that rape victims often face delays in prosecution and other complications in filing complaints against perpetrators.
Pok Panha Vichet, executive director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, echoed Mr. Chanveasna’s sentiment, saying that the lack of faith in law enforcement and ineffectiveness of the courts was a key factor in the country’s inability to significantly reduce rape and violent crime against minors.
“One contributing factor [to the child rape problem] is impunity,” Ms. Panha Vichet said, explaining that oftentimes, perpetrators of rape are never put in jail, either because the victim is scared of the societal repercussions of exposing herself as a rape victim in court or because the victim accepts out-of-court settlements.
“When you talk about the legal process, which is based on evidence, that’s also a challenge. You have to ask local authorities to certify who the perpetrator is and prove how he has done such and such, and sometimes local authorities are scared to do this because they think it is not their affair,” she added.
In order to spread awareness of women’s rights and legal protection against rape, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has worked with the Interior Ministry and partner NGOs to launch public education campaigns, according to Hor Malin, undersecretary of state at the ministry.
The fact that more rape cases are being reported now, compared to past years, is evidence that the campaigns are working, she maintained.
According to Mr. Harding of Friends International, the child rape problem persists because of impunity.
“Essentially, these situations happen because people feel they can get away with them,” he said.
“When we are talking about violence against children, it’s as good a reason as any to begin strengthening these legal systems.”