malai district, Banteay Meanchey province – Eyes downcast and forehead pinched, Phun Seak, 12, sat outside her home in the middle of a gathering crowd.
Neighbors in Koh Shoul village leaned in to hear how, on a night in 2000, a young man raped and beat her when she was just eight years old.
Phun Seak told her story in a whisper, drawing her knees to her chest as she sat on a low bench, her long hair hiding her face. Her mother wept, crouching near her oldest child to rub her back.
“He raped me. He choked me with leaves to make me stop crying,” the 12-year-old said. “He took my legs, pushed them into the roots of a tree.”
The rapist, 19-year-old Sieng Mon, then beat Phun Seak with a log, in an apparent attempt to kill his victim and forever silence the only witness to his attack.
When Phun Seak was eventually found the next morning, it was also discovered that the rapist had gouged both of her eyes so hard that she is today nearly blind in one and prone to almost constant infection in the other.
Superstition holds in Cambodia that the eyes of the dead remain forever imprinted with the last thing they see—a worrying prospect for a rapist and a killer.
That Phun Seak survived her attack could be called a miracle. But the life to which she is now consigned belies such ideas.
She is in many ways an outcast, coping not only with nightmares, chronic pain from her eye injuries and diminishing eyesight, but the pain of stigma.
Traditionally, there is little hope of a raped woman finding a husband, and in rural Cambodia, where many women rely on husbands for income, Phun Seak’s prospects are dim.
This is a future more and more girls in Cambodia face, say government officials and NGO workers, who note that across the country, the age of rape victims is plummeting while the number of rapes is increasing.
Small girls are less likely to carry HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and parents—who will do everything to protect their daughters’ reputations—can be intimidated to remain silent after an attack, said Minister of Women’s Affairs Ing Kuntha Phavy.
“Before, people didn’t report it because it was a shame,” Ing Kuntha Phavy said. “We are doing an awareness campaign, that all forms of violence against women and children are a crime. This is something that provokes legal awareness, when they can find help for rape.”
Over the last 12 months, say officials with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and rights groups Adhoc, Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, Licadho and Protection of Juvenile Justice, reports of rape against children under 18 years old have increased across the country.
Adhoc has handled a steadily increasing number of child rapes in its offices throughout Cambodia, said Provincial Coordinator Yin Mengly. She said one of the sharpest increases has been in Battambang province, where the group has tallied 32 child rape cases since January. Adhoc handled three child rape cases in the province in 2004, she said.
At Licadho, Children’s Rights Coordinator Phav Kimsan has handled 159 child rape cases so far this year. The count in 2004 was 140.
There is no official national statistic on child rape, nor do government officials and NGO workers agree whether the increase is due to more people coming forward to expose rapes or a true rise in the number of rapes.
But many say that the legal complacency surrounding rape leads them to believe it is truly on the rise and will continue to increase.
Oung Chanthol, executive director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, said just 1 percent of rapists are arrested and sent to jail. And, she said, the law is unclear about how much and when a victim should be compensated financially.
Ing Kuntha Phavy defended Cambodia’s legal system, though she gave no figures about the numbers of rapists arrested or convicted each year. “We try to follow all cases,” she said. “We try to ensure all victims, especially child victims, are given justice.”
Thach Sovann, criminal police chief for Banteay Meanchey, said that Sieng Mon was arrested, convicted and sent to jail for the rape of Phun Seak. Police officials in Malai did not know whether he was still in prison.
As tears spilled onto her cheeks, Phun Seak said that she cannot concentrate in her second-grade class and has few friends. She said her eyes and head hurt constantly, and that she wished her parents could afford to send her to a doctor.
When she was finished, Phun Seak curled up, her small body shaking as she cried.
Villagers chimed in, offering opinions of Phun Seak and her future. Though they pity her and revile Sieng Mon, villagers in Koh Shoul believe Phun Seak is a “broken sister.”
“If he were here, we would beat him until he died,” said 24-year-old Sok San, a neighbor in the crowd.
“You should not rape little girls, make them suffer, handicap them. If I knew him, I would beat him until the police stopped me.”
Phun Seak’s mother, Phun Suy, has little hope. “Since she was attacked, I don’t think she’ll be a good person,” she said. “She has a bad future. She’s damaged.”
Phun Suy, 31, drew in the dirt with a twig, quietly describing changes in her daughter’s personality. The once-cheerful Phun Seak has become withdrawn, she says. She wanders away from home without remembering where she is going or why.
Phun Suy said she and her husband do not earn enough as laborers picking chilies and cucumbers in Thailand to buy her medicine, let alone send her to a doctor. “I don’t know what she will be when she grows up, but I worry that she will be blind,” she said.
As for the rest of her daughter’s future, she said: “I don’t hope about that.”