In Cambodia, a Low Profile for Rape

[This article was published on January 3, 2013]

Under the cover of darkness, two men on Sunday night beat unconscious and then gang raped a 19-year-old disabled woman in a banana field in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district.

“They beat me until I was unconscious. When I woke up at the hospital, a doctor came and told me that I had been gang raped,” the victim said from her home on Tuesday.

“I don’t remember everything,” she said. “What happened to me is terrible.”

Sunday’s brutal attack is by no means an isolated case of sexual violence against women in Cambodia. Of the roughly 320 rape cases recorded by rights group Adhoc last year, 201 were committed against minors. In 2012, The Cambodia Daily reported on 10 rape-murders of minors as well as three separate cases of rape being committed against disabled women.

In Kien Svay district, police have made no arrests in the rape case of the 19-year-old polio survivor, though district police chief Pam Sam Eth said officials had identified a young man in the area as a suspect.

Despite the lack of police action and the cruelty of the crime, there has been no public outcry for the woman, who is now being cared for by her parents and seven brothers and sisters.

In India, however, public anger has broken out in the streets of New Delhi over the rape and murder of a 23-year-old Indian physiotherapy student, who was violently assaulted last month by a group of men riding in a private bus. After her death on Saturday, thousands took to the streets to burn candles and express their grief and outrage over the attack. Six men have now been charged with the crime.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has expressed his “deepest condolences” to the family of the victim and called for a debate on how to change societal attitudes toward women.

“In Cambodia, too, the suspects have to be arrested and punished before the law, and the society should actively participate and make a contribution to bringing the suspects to justice,” said Adhoc’s provincial investigator Men Makara.

Part of the reason there is less public outcry in Cambodia, he said, is because of the limited amount of law enforcement for such crimes.

“Rape has become normal for people because of the limited law enforcement and decreasing morality. It makes other people want to commit the same crime,” Mr. Makara said.

In 2011, Adhoc worked on 467 rape cases compared to about 320 in 2012. But rights workers say rape crime in the country is underreported as many victims never file complaints with the police or are compensated financially by the perpetrator to avoid the case going to court.

Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said that while he did not have figures on the numbers of arrests made of rapists in 2012, law enforcement in the country was sufficient.

“The law enforcement is strong enough. Sometimes, they [the rapists] get 10 years or 15 years in prison,” Lt. Gen. Sopheak said yesterday.

Still, in Kandal province, where three men raped a 25-year-old female polio victim in a wheelchair in October, very little action has been taken.

One of the suspects was arrested and charged by the provincial court less than 24 hours after the crime, but two others present at the scene remain free, said Sa’ang district police chief Seng Socheat.

“We identified them, but we did not arrest them yet,” said Mr. Socheat, adding that he was still waiting for the court to issue an arrest warrant before taking further action.

According to a 2010 report by Amnesty International, many victims do not report being raped because the perpetrators are well-connected or because they do not have enough money to pay for legal fees. The report, Breaking the Silence, also found that sex workers were common targets for sexual violence, as police do not take them seriously when they report sex crimes.

The Amnesty report describes one trial in which an 11-year-old gang rape victim was being cross-examined by a defense lawyer whose tone reduced her to tears. The lawyer kept asking the victim why she had not cried out for help, to which she finally replied that she dared not, because her clothes had been ripped off and she didn’t want anyone to find her naked.

The report also documents a young girl who explained that she was too scared to tell her father that she had been raped. When she eventually told him about the incident, he slapped her in the face and blamed her for walking too far away from home.

“Amid a culture of impunity and widespread corruption, victims of sexual violence in Cambodia are often denied justice; struggle to pay informal fees for health services; and grapple to obtain assistance and support. Commonly, law-enforcement officials, including police and court staff, arrange unlawful out-of-court payments between the victim and the perpetrator (or their families),” the report states.

“The lack of effective investigations and prosecution further harms victims, who often live with the fear that the perpetrator is free to attack them again, with the additional psychological pain and a perceived loss of dignity. Failures by the authorities, including in the criminal justice system, go unquestioned and become an extension of the initial abuse,” the report adds.

“It’s discussed more and more openly. Most people would have heard that it’s a crime and can be punished,” said Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho. “But in reality, it’s different especially when the victims are older and the victims don’t report the crime.”

In Kien Svay district, the perpetrators of the disabled 19-year-old rape victim are still living free.

“I feel sorry for her and for my family. What happened is terrible,” the victim’s aunt said this week, adding that everyone in the village was shocked that someone would be so cruel to target and rape a disabled girl.

Dei Ith commune chief Suoth To said he decided to hold a meeting with about 50 residents in the village on Monday to raise awareness about the rape.

“I invited achars, village councilors, primary school principals and others to tell them about the case and to make them aware of rape,” he said.

District police chief Pam Sam Eth said police had identified a suspect in the case and would make an arrest soon.

“We are working hard on this case, but we need more time to investigate,” he said.

“It was already 9 p.m. when she was raped. She shouldn’t have been out so late,” he added.

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