In Phnom Penh, Women Still Don’t Feel Safe on the Streets

This charming city belongs to us all. If only it were as charming as the banners say.

We all know the legend of Phnom Penh’s founding by a woman, Daun Penh, about 600 years ago. Yet in 2015, women cannot enjoy the city without fearing harassment and abuse. Almost four out of five women recently surveyed by ActionAid Cambodia did not feel safe when going out alone after dark. 

There are many examples of how the reality of urban living can be truly dangerous and demeaning. Inside the factories that ring the metropolis, garment workers often face sexual harassment and violence from supervisors. And the risk of assault continues on their journey to and from work along unlit streets. In rented rooms in slum communities, beer promoters, sex workers and other women frequently must rely on outdoor toilets and have to wash in public. These vulnerable people risk getting molested at home—as well as at work.

In 2012, our survey found, the Cambodian media reported 665 cases of rape. Less than half resulted in charges being pressed. Only seven resulted in a prosecution. It’s this impunity to the law that means that sexually-motivated crimes keep happening. If women report sexual abuse to the police, they can face blame for their choice of clothing or for being out at night. Even families sometimes respond by telling wives, mothers and daughters to simply stay at home.

This is all totally unacceptable. Our charming city is blighted by crimes against women. Anxiety is an everyday reality, a “normal” part of daily life for so many. All Phnom Penh citizens—men too—need to come together to solve this deep, dark problem.

In July 2014, Phnom Penh pioneered the Safe Cities for Women campaign, which now involves 20 countries around the world. And on Sunday, International Women’s Day, the citizens of Phnom Penh will once again stand together with ActionAid and our partner organizations.

We are campaigning to change sexist attitudes. We’d like to see government and businesses, leaders and individuals, act now to end sexual violence in Phnom Penh, and to ensure that no attacker goes unpunished. The municipality must also provide more and better gender-responsive public services. This can be as simple as putting up more street lights in the darkest lanes and alleys, or around the garment factories. Moreover, safe and affordable housing for women and their children can provide privacy, dignity and security without overcrowding.

We will assist the municipality to challenge sexist attitudes via public education campaigns, and to act against negative attitudes and practices within government institutions and agencies, especially the police. Ultimately, more women police officers, and more female officials from the city council to the districts and communes will be a big factor in making change happen.

We also want garment factories to make sure women employees are never harassed, can safely report incidences of abuse and violence when they are attacked, and get justice. And we want individuals across Cambodia, women and men, young and old, to call for an end to sexual harassment and abuse against women. So come join us from 3 p.m. at Freedom Park on Sunday and dance for women’s rights, sign the petition calling for improved street lighting, or just “like” the campaign on Facebook.

Starting with Phnom Penh, only through speaking up and standing up can we make our cities safe, secure and inclusive places for women to live in.

Caroline McCausland is country director for ActionAid Cambodia.

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