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Getting sexually assaulted is not a choice! How can we make a safer society for Cambodian women?

Written by: Soth Chhayheng, a 2nd year student at Thammasat University, Bachelor of Political Science Program in Politics and International Relations

Edited by: Heng Kimkong, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Cambodia Development Center and a PhD Candidate in Education at The University of Queensland, Australia

Photo Credit: "lost" by Random_Alex

Frankly, I am neither a woman nor a person who has ever been sexually assaulted by anybody. But the fact that women in our society are still living under many forms of pressure is very upsetting, particularly on the matter of sexual assault.

Sexual assault is a form of sexual contact that occurs without the consent of the victim and can take in many different forms such as rape, attempted rape, and unwanted sexual touching. Getting sexually assaulted isn’t a choice. All women deserve to be safe and protected at any time and in any place. The victims of sexual assault face both psychological and physical fallout. The consequences are beyond explanation. Therefore, sexual assault on women needs to be stopped and the perpetrator must be held accountable.                                        

A  UN report in 2013 indicated that more than one in five Cambodian men aged between 18 and 49 admitted to having raped a woman, and one-third of the rape cases were committed by family members. The UN report also pointed out that the main factors that lead to the perpetration of these sexual crimes included poverty, lack of education, domestic violence, exposure to childhood trauma, and alcohol abuse. The myth that sexual assault occurs when women themselves provoke it by how they dress or behave is absolutely wrong and can never be justified. This claim is a flawed logic commonly used by the perpetrators to get away from their crimes. There is absolutely no excuse to justify one’s criminal act. Social pressure such as the gender norms and gender inequality has prevented many victims from reporting their cases to the authority, making sexual assault one of the most underreported crimes. No more victims shall have to live in trauma and fear with no justice delivered to them. No more girls or women have to face sexual assault. Easy to say! But how can we make a safer society for all Cambodian girls and women? 

The necessary laws to prevent and punish the perpetrators are already in place. Meanwhile, relevant stakeholders such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Justice, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and advocates for women’s rights are already there. Yet the problems still occur! It is impossible to eradicate this issue from the face of the earth within a blink of an eye. However, there are ways that we can fight against it.

First and foremost, the key strategy is to demand strong willingness from the government to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness in the judicial system. In order to prevent sexual assault crimes, government responsiveness through the efficient practice of law is most needed. The government must continue to enhance its effort in reducing corruption at all levels and strengthen their effectiveness in resolving problems for the victims. Undeniably, many Cambodians neither believe in the effectiveness of the judicial system nor the authorities in Cambodia. A public’s perception survey report published by the University of Cambodia indicated that “There is not much trust in the police/authorities being able to capture the perpetrator and in the justice system to prosecute and punish the perpetrator”. Enforcement of law is therefore crucially important and the need to enhance the authority's efficiency in conducting their work is even much needed. When injustice happens, people often cry out for the Prime Minister's help. Any case that caught the Prime Minister's attention was often resolved. Those that did not often remained unsolved.

Thus, it appears that justice is not always served by the verdict of the justice system. Another report conducted by LICADHO, a Cambodian human rights NGO, showed that the authority encouraged many rapes and indecent assault cases to be settled privately, by suggesting that the victim marry the perpetrator or accepting cash compensation – in which case civil servants receive a percentage of the compensation. Otherwise, the victims may have to spend a lot of money on every step through the whole legal procedure to settle the case. This scenario is a major factor that has demotivated many victims from seeking justice after having been assaulted. Most importantly, a weak justice system is likely to allow the perpetrators, especially the rich, to undermine the law and continue to commit crimes without consequences. However, the recent sexual assault case allegedly committed by a tycoon named Heng Sier on a young female star has angered the Cambodian netizen. This incident has raised an intensified public debate over sexual assault in Cambodia and many people have demanded justice for the victim. Fortunately, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s volunteer lawyers came out to represent the supposed victim of the alleged attempted rape in the court. As the case is still ongoing, the public is still waiting to see whether or not justice will be served.

Second, it is crucial to raise awareness and promote social norms that protect all girls and women from sexual assault. Enough for the questions on the victims as to why they wear sexy clothes, why their behaviors are sexually attractive and so on.  Girls and women have the right to wear whatever they want. We should not put restrictions on their clothes choice. When it comes to sexual assault, NO MEANS NO! This society should ask how we can make sure that everyone is safe and can live the life they desire. Eradicating the false myths through education and raising awareness is the crucial step in achieving a safer society for women. Education and awareness raising campaigns shall start now and everywhere, including at home, in schools and workplaces, in public forums and social groups and in the community. Raising awareness through more meaningful discussions at different age groups and backgrounds will shape understanding and create a new culture that respects women's rights and their choices. It is crucial to conduct more women’s empowerment-based training that teaches healthy and safe dating for women.

Third, it is vital to create well-protected environments for women. This can begin at schools and workplaces by setting strict policies to ensure safety and respect for women and girls. While at the same time, efforts need to be made to address this issue, raise awareness, and inspire everyone to respect women as equal gender. Schools and workplaces should also closely monitor their respective environments to ensure that women’s rights are protected. Consultation and help centers for victims of sexual assault in the community should be made widely available to support those in need.

Last but not least, recent sexual assault incident in Cambodia have taught us an important lesson; that is, public opinions can make a remarkable influence on things that matter such as domestic violence and sexual assault on women. The exercise of freedom of expression in a democratic state is profoundly important. It is crucial not only for sexual assault problems but also other social issues. Cambodians therefore need to use social media platforms to voice their concerns and address the topics that matter to their community and their country. Our social values have been ruined by the ignorant few who try to manipulate people with irrelevant issues on social media. Enough for that too! Let us use our voices to empower women and girls! Let us use our voices to make our society better through meaningful public discussions! Let us use our voices to eradicate sexual assault in Cambodia and create a safer society for all!