Rape cases continue to rise across the country, but the increase over the past few years is only rarely reflected in the rhetoric of top government leaders.
Although Prime Minister Hun Sen’s freewheeling public speeches have embraced topics ranging from his family troubles to his favorite TV commercials, speeches archived on his website mention rape only a handful of times in the past five years. In only two of those instances, did he discuss gender-based violence at any length.
But during a speech on crime last week, Mr Hun Sen cited rape as a growing problem, pointing to it as the only crime that increased in 2010. He did not elaborate on the trend or address child rape, which by some tallies accounts for 80 percent of all rape cases in Cambodia.
“I am disappointed that the prime minister only talked about rape cases a little bit but did not specify any ways to crack down on rapes,” said SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua.
“We know already that rape cases have been happening for years, and now the issue is out of control. The prime minister should show a strong will to warn citizens now that a million women are now facing rape.”
Just two days before his speech on crime, the premier gave another address in which he appeared to place partial blame on the more than 600 victims of defrocked monk Net Khai, who surreptitiously filmed them bathing naked in a Phnom Penh pagoda.
“I wondered why the bathers in that place did not take a look here and there,” he said. “Next time, don’t believe so strongly that holy water is effective only when [you are] naked.”
The premier’s words were reminiscent of a 2006 speech he gave in which he condemned domestic violence, but went on to note: “Women gather in a group and speak behind their husbands’ backs. When they return home, they find faults with their husbands. Then the war starts. Sometimes, women create the problem themselves.”
Last week, Ms Sochua, who is also a former minister of Women’s Affairs, condemned the Net Khai remarks, saying they would only encourage men to prey on women.
“This encourages men who attempt to violate the value of women and children,” she said then. “His speech seems to give other monks and men the feeling that doing this is OK. We have to break the silence. The silence of victims, society and the government encourage the doer to keep going without pressure.”
Bith Kimhong, director of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection unit, said the premier’s one recent mention of rape was enough to light a fire under authorities nationwide
“Due to the speech of Prime Minister Hun Sen, rape cases are our biggest concern in Cambodia nowadays,” he said last week. “Now we are pushing further on rape cases because they are not decreasing.”
Still, Mr Kimhong acknowledged that the effort to fight rape had not yet progressed very far.
“So far, we have listed some reasons [for the increase in rape] already, but it is still not enough to reduce rape cases.”
Police Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, the Interior Ministry’s spokesman, also insisted that the premier’s speech last week would herald an increased focus on rape in 2011. He said the release of the annual crime statistics, which showed a decline in every other type of crime but an increase in rape, had spurred Mr Hun Sen’s remarks.
Lt Gen Sopheak added that police had been instructed to disallow compensation deals in which victims are paid not to press charges.
“This must be done very strictly…. Police will not allow the victim to receive [monetary] compensation for not putting the complaint,” he said. “The compensation must be having the people who commit this crime punished by the law.”
Sy Define, secretary of state in charge of legal protection at the Women’s Affairs Ministry, said the prime minister was too busy to devote much time to the issue of rape but said other officials could and should do so.
“Normally, the prime minister cannot focus deeply on rape cases due to the fact that he has a lot of work to do,” she said. “But we ourselves need to focus on rape and…find the root of rape cases, especially child rapes.”
But she added that the ministry had not yet begun its planned in-depth study of rape due to a lack of funding.
Lim Leang Se, deputy Cabinet chief for Mr Hun Sen, declined to comment for this article.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha and Julia Wallace)