Uk In laughed and giggled as he recounted the crime that landed him a 12-year sentence in Kompong Speu provincial prison.
The acne on his face belied his 23 years, making him look more like a teenager rather than a man facing another 10 years in jail for raping a woman from his village in San Rong Tong district two years ago.
He assaulted the then 23-year-old girl named Sameth after his friend dared him to kiss her.
“When I kissed her, I felt like raping her,” he said.
“I did not complete the rape successfully because I knew I would go to jail,” he claimed, adding “but court medical diagnosis proved that she was raped.”
“I knew raping was illegal, but I didn’t know it’s such a strong penalty,” said Uk In.
In’s fellow inmate Sam On is awaiting trial for the rape of a 15-year-old girl.
He too admits to the crime that occurred six months ago in Boset district, Kompong Speu province, but says he was “very drunk” when he grabbed her as she was herding cows alone in the afternoon.
“I felt nervous. She didn’t cry or shout. I didn’t threaten her. No one saw us,” he said, adding that the girl went home and told her mother. By 5 pm that evening, he was arrested and taken to prison.
“I know it’s wrong. I have one daughter. She’s five months old. My wife has never visited me in jail,” he said.
Although he knows he broke the law, Sam On believes that if he pays the family compensation, he should not be prosecuted.
“If I pay compensation, I should be free,” he said.
Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said most people in Cambodia don’t consider rape a crime because of a myth that says men cannot control themselves.
In 2004, local rights group Adhoc received 326 rape reports, a slight decrease from 2003, where the number was 356.
Separate monitoring of media reports by Licadho showed 152 people were raped in 2004, Kek Galabru said.
Out of 140 of those cases, only nine cases were sent to trial, seven cases were settled by compensation and in one case, the rapist married his victim.
Adhoc also found judges sentenced suspects in only 7 percent of the rape cases they monitored last year.
“Some don’t pay attention so perpetrators escape,” Adhoc monitoring section staffer Ol Soulhan said. “They say the state is very poor and don’t have enough money to do an investigation, so they drop the complaint.”
Police arrested perpetrators in 43 percent of rape cases but only 40 percent of the complaints were sent to court because police will often mediate the case, she added
“Ninety percent of the victims are poor, and they don’t feel they can get justice from the judge so they take compensation.” Most rapes reported to Adhoc were committed against children and last year, 61 percent of rape victims were aged 3 to 18 years-old, and in three cases the victims were infants and toddlers aged 18 months, 3 years and 5 years.
Attempts to obtain Ministry of Interior figures on rape in Cambodia were unsuccessful.
Over a two week period, reporters made repeated phone calls and two visits to the office of Un Sokunthea, director of the Anti-trafficking department at the ministry, but could not get the information.
In a 2003 Adhoc study on the attitude of perpetrators, rapists said they attacked children because they are easy to access, persuade and threaten.
Kek Galabru said perpetrators rape younger victims because they are afraid of getting AIDS, and because Asian men believe having sex with a virgin will revitalize them.
“They are willing to pay $500 to $700 for a girl who is 12-years-old to ensure she’s a virgin. She’s raped. She’s not a volunteer,” she said.
At Kompong Speu prison Uk In told how his victim asked him to pay $3,000 in compensation, which he could not afford. He offered to marry her to avoid his prison sentence but “her family denied because she was engaged already,” he said.
Unlike Uk In’s victim, most women who are raped have such low self esteem, they feel defiled, and believe that nobody in their village will marry them, said Dr Lor Vann Thary, clinical supervisor at the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization.
“The one who was raped…feels worthless. She may not care about her body,” Lor Vann Thary said, adding that being a rape victim can make a woman more vulnerable to being raped again,. “Most victims live in communities, so when a woman is raped, other people know. It makes some people want to rape her next time because they feel like she’s already spoiled,” he added.
One such victim is Than Heng, 35, who was first raped when she was five-years-old by three Khmer Rouge soldiers in Baka district, Pursat province. Than Heng agreed to give her name.
After killing people, the soldiers would give her a black pill to calm her, and a different one would rape her every other night. After one month, they stopped and she never saw them again.
Orphaned by the time she was 9, Than Heng was taken in by a man she calls her “stepfather.” When she was 17, and he was 75 years-old, he asked her to marry him. When she refused, he beat her repeatedly. One afternoon, he locked all the doors and raped her.
Than Heng tried to commit suicide by taking a sleeping pill overdose, but her stepfather was able to get her to the hospital on time.
When she recovered, she ran away from home, but sexual abuse continued at the hands of others and she eventually wound up in a Kampot province brothel.
“Children who are raped, it’s a big trauma. It affects them physically, emotionally and psychologically. He or she may lose trust to adults because most perpetrators are known to them,” Dr Lor Vann Thary said.
“After I was raped, I don’t think sex is important. I don’t think anything is important,” Than Heng said.
Children who were raped often have symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder—they avoid people, re-experience the event and have nightmares, said Lor Vann Thary.
As adults, they can display inappropriate sexual behavior, such as dressing provocatively or having indiscriminate sex, he added.
“They need help, otherwise they’ll be affected for life. If it’s a boy, later on, his tendency is that he will rape children as an adult,” he said.
During her 8 years as a sex worker, Than Heng estimates she has been raped about 20 times—once because her right arm had been burned in a cooking accident, and the man was angry that he was given “a disfigured lady.”
One of her clients offered to marry her in 2002, but after the wedding, he began beating her children, so she divorced him and returned to work in a brothel.
“Most women go back into prostitution because if you think about the way someone enters prostitution, especially in Asian countries, you’re stigmatized, marginalized forever. It’s difficult for even families to take them back,” said Aarti Kapoor, legal advisor to the NGO Afesip.
Korm Sok Andeth, a psychologist at TPO, blames the country’s weak judicial system for the problem of rapes.
“The law is not strong enough. It encourages other people to rape. They just pay money and [don’t] go to prison,” she said.
For Than Heng, a lifetime of abuse cannot be erased.
“I am ready to commit suicide. I already told my son and daughter, if anyone wants to marry you, you marry. Don’t wait,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Nhem Chea Bunly and Kuch Naren)