The number of reported rapes has risen dramatically in the past year, leading the government, police and NGOs to suspect an increase in incidents of rape.
Nationwide, police have received 200 reports of rape in 2002; in all of 2001, there were only about 150 reports, said Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua. NGOs that work with rape victims also said their caseloads have shot up, and police in six provinces said they have seen more rape cases.
It is possible that incident levels have not risen but rather that more rapes are being reported, they cautioned. But most said the upsurge is too large to be explained merely by an increase in reporting.
Disturbing trends accompany the increase, officials and NGO workers said: Younger and younger girls are being raped, incest rapes are becoming more common and rapes are more frequently violent, involving the beating, mutilation or killing of the victim.
“In previous years we have had less than 20 cases a year,” said Chanthol Oung, head of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, which works in Phnom Penh and in Siem Reap and Banteay Meanchey provinces. “Last year, there were more than 200 cases.”
In the last week of May alone, the NGO Open Forum found 10 rapes reported in Khmer-language newspapers. All the victims were younger than 20, including children aged 3, 5, 7 and 9. Several of the victims were also killed.
NGOs tend to receive far more rape reports than police—probably because many Cambodians don’t trust authorities, said Naly Pilorge, deputy director of the human rights group Licadho.
But in the last year police, too, have received more rape reports.
Chhoeum Sokhom, deputy judicial police chief of Banteay Meanchey province, said 10 rape cases have been reported there this year. The majority of the victims were minors; in two cases, fathers raped their daughters, he said.
But lack of awareness about rape laws and social attitudes about female sexuality make cases difficult to prosecute, he said.
“Some rape victims don’t want to sue the offenders because they are too ashamed to go to trial,” he said. “So they solve the problem outside the law,” usually through a cash settlement.
Traditional Cambodian attitudes prize women’s virginity highly. Men believe sex with virgin girls enhances their health, while women who are not virgins are considered “fallen” and unmarriageable.
Chea Toung, Battambang deputy judicial police chief, said he believes the increase in rape cases is due to male teen-agers using drugs and watching pornographic movies.
In a women’s rights report, the human rights group Adhoc noted, “The influx of pornographic videos and drug using in rural areas has coincided [with] an increase in rape in those areas.”
To Mu Sochua, a breakdown in traditional values of family, community and personal responsibility is at the heart of the problem.
“We have lived in violence, and we have not healed,” the minister said. “We have a weak family system and a culture of people trying only to survive, protecting only themselves.”
Chanthol Oung agreed that the younger generation, born of war and violence, has never learned to tell right from wrong.
In addition, a culture of impunity means would-be criminals are not afraid their actions will have consequences. Most rapists “are never punished by the law, so people are not afraid to commit this crime,” Chanthol Oung said.
Only 12 percent of reported rapes are ever put on trial, and only seven percent end in a conviction, she said.
Adhoc’s Ouk Kimchantara said those convicted of raping minor girls often spend as little as three years in prison and pay just 700,000 to 1 million riel (about $175 to $250) in compensation.
Police in Kompong Cham, Ratanakkiri, Siem Reap and Kampot provinces all said the majority of their rape cases involved minors.
Among the minor rapes handled by Licadho’s children’s rights unit, the victims and perpetrators alike are much younger in 2002 than they were in 2001.
Last year, the average age of child rape victims who came to Licadho was 12; this year it is nine, Pilorge said. The average age of child rapists has gone from 20-28 to 18-24.
Pilorge said 69 percent of the group’s cases of abuse against children were rapes. The victims ranged in age from 15 months to 17 years.
There is no clear explanation for these phenomena, said Ouk Kimchantara. “Rape is increasing, violent rape is increasing, but we don’t know why,” she said.
While factors such as declining social values and economically motivated migration can be cited, these problems have existed for decades in Cambodia—they did not arise suddenly in the last year.
Rape needs to be seen as its own issue, said Shelley Preece, a consultant who has studied rape in Cambodia. “It overlaps with trafficking, child rights or domestic violence, but no NGO works specifically with rape,” she said.
“NGOs are now starting to talk more about rape as an individual issue,” she added.
Mu Sochua said the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is working on programs to sensitize police, courts and the public to the issue.
Since raped women are seen as shamed, families often settle cases out of court or even force victims to marry their rapists, she noted.
“We cannot stop it if society accepts victims being silenced,” she said. “Even the law will not help.”