Project MonMa in Cambodia

Project Monma travelled to Cambodia to learn more about the situation of women’s right’s in the country. We visited several different cities where we spoke with both men and women about the different forms of violence and discrimination facing women and girls.

Violence, discrimination and sexual assault are all serious issues for women and girls in Cambodia. According to a national survey commissioned by the Government and the UN in 2015, 32 per cent of Cambodian women experience emotional abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime while 21 per cent face physical and/or sexual violence and 8 per cent have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in the past 12 months.

Violence and discrimination against women is often compounded by cultural traditions where women are considered inferior and are expected to be subservient to men. This is reflected in traditional codes of conduct such as the Chbab Srey (Women’s Law) that teaches women to be subservient to men. Women are also often trapped by economic dependence on men and so often find it difficult to leave abusive situations.

A problem that is often made worse by relatives, communities and society that tend to pressure women to keep quiet and suffer in silence. There is also still a tendency for society to believe that domestic violence is an internal family problem, which also prevents victims from speaking up. 

‘Violence against women is one of the most pervasive human rights violations in Cambodia,’ said UN Women Country Representative Wendy Kusuma. ‘Due to shame and social stigma, most victims never tell others of the violence they have experienced and very few seek assistance. This underscores the urgency of ensuring that a full range of services are available and that all victims are fully aware of their right to access these services.’

Furthermore, many men do not accept that women have the right to be free from violence of any form, and many women themselves do not understand that they do not need to accept violence. In cases where women do report the perpetrator to the authorities or those that ask for a divorce, they often end up in pointless mediation processes that results in their further victimization. This process is enormously damaging to the victims and perpetuates cycles of violence.

Chan Kanha, a deputy mayor for the Cambodian People’s Party said, ‘there are a number of challenges for women in Cambodia. The first is the culture, which says that women should be quiet and submissive. Women don’t usually get a higher education and usually only go to grade 9, sometimes grade 12. Parents also don’t want girls to study in higher education because they think that women can’t do the same work as men. They think that women should always stay at home and take care of the children. The government has also kept women out of politics, though this is slowly changing.’

‘There are now many girls in grade 12 who are going to university. We are seeing other changes as well, such as divorce. As women are becoming more educated and open-minded, divorce is increasing,’ she added. 

Sexual harassment and assault is also a problem in Cambodian society however, is also often not spoken about due to the shame and stigma attached to it. There are also cases where in villages, if a woman is raped, she is made to marry the rapist. In other cases the man has to pay a fine. In Cambodia, a woman is expected to be a virgin to be married, so if she has been raped, no one will marry her. So often, a victim of sexual harassment or assault will say nothing and the man will go free.’

‘It’s happening less and less, but it’s still happening,’ said Kanha. ‘If there are people around a woman or a girl who know that she has been assaulted, then they will try to speak up for her. There are laws against sexual assault but corruption is a problem. Men can just pay. Women also often just take the money because they don’t want to cause a big problem. The law is not strong enough to protect women. Many women who do speak out are often criticized and people complain about them.’

Existing rape legislation also fails to adequately define the offence of rape, most significantly by not referring in any way to the issue of consent. Rape is defined in the law as sexual penetration committed through ‘cruelty, coercion or surprise’, which in practice leads the courts to consider that rape must involve serious violence and injuries. This ignores the fact that many rapes are committed without major injury and that rapists in Cambodia often have a weapon and make threats of violence or death making victims afraid of being attacked further.

Furthermore, data shows that men do not fear beating, harassing and abusing women because there are few legal consequences. A survey undertaken of 2,000 Cambodian men, by four UN agencies, found that as many as 1 in 5 of the respondents have attempted or committed violence against women, including rape. Almost half of those admitting to perpetrating violence stated that they never faced legal consequences for their actions. 

The lack of legal protection against rape in some ways reinforce societal attitudes which tend to blame or shame women who are raped. Cambodian police also lacks specialized units, personnel and protocols to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence and to prosecute perpetrators effectively. Courts and judges also do not have sufficient knowledge to adjudicate gender-based violence cases.

Positively, there have been good efforts and initiatives from the Cambodian government to adopt guidelines and practices to improve the treatment of female victims of violence. In 1992, Cambodia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which contains provisions to reduce and eliminate violence against women. By ratifying this instrument, Cambodia committed itself to protecting Cambodian women from violence and eliminating discrimination against women.

The Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims was also passed in 2005, however many law enforcement officials and the general public, including women themselves, are not aware of the existence of this law. Much stronger steps are needed to address the problem which remains widespread through Cambodia.

For Kanha, education is the key for improving women’s lives in Cambodia. ‘Get educated,’ she said. ‘When you have a high education, you can get the high-level jobs and they cannot criticize you anymore. You have to try and know what you want to do and you have to try and get that. It doesn’t matter what other people say, have a goal and do it. I have been able to do what I have done because of my own power and courage. I don’t care what other people say, I know what I want to do and I do it. I want to encourage women to encourage each other.’

Project MonMa in Cambodia

Project Monma travelled to Cambodia to learn more about the situation of women’s right’s in the country. We visited several different cities where we spoke with both men and women about the different forms of violence and discrimination facing women and girls.

Violence, discrimination and sexual assault are all serious issues for women and girls in Cambodia. According to a national survey commissioned by the Government and the UN in 2015, 32 per cent of Cambodian women experience emotional abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime while 21 per cent face physical and/or sexual violence and 8 per cent have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in the past 12 months.

Violence and discrimination against women is often compounded by cultural traditions where women are considered inferior and are expected to be subservient to men. This is reflected in traditional codes of conduct such as the Chbab Srey (Women’s Law) that teaches women to be subservient to men. Women are also often trapped by economic dependence on men and so often find it difficult to leave abusive situations.

A problem that is often made worse by relatives, communities and society that tend to pressure women to keep quiet and suffer in silence. There is also still a tendency for society to believe that domestic violence is an internal family problem, which also prevents victims from speaking up. 

‘Violence against women is one of the most pervasive human rights violations in Cambodia,’ said UN Women Country Representative Wendy Kusuma. ‘Due to shame and social stigma, most victims never tell others of the violence they have experienced and very few seek assistance. This underscores the urgency of ensuring that a full range of services are available and that all victims are fully aware of their right to access these services.’

Furthermore, many men do not accept that women have the right to be free from violence of any form, and many women themselves do not understand that they do not need to accept violence. In cases where women do report the perpetrator to the authorities or those that ask for a divorce, they often end up in pointless mediation processes that results in their further victimization. This process is enormously damaging to the victims and perpetuates cycles of violence.

Chan Kanha, a deputy mayor for the Cambodian People’s Party said, ‘there are a number of challenges for women in Cambodia. The first is the culture, which says that women should be quiet and submissive. Women don’t usually get a higher education and usually only go to grade 9, sometimes grade 12. Parents also don’t want girls to study in higher education because they think that women can’t do the same work as men. They think that women should always stay at home and take care of the children. The government has also kept women out of politics, though this is slowly changing.’

‘There are now many girls in grade 12 who are going to university. We are seeing other changes as well, such as divorce. As women are becoming more educated and open-minded, divorce is increasing,’ she added. 

Sexual harassment and assault is also a problem in Cambodian society however, is also often not spoken about due to the shame and stigma attached to it. There are also cases where in villages, if a woman is raped, she is made to marry the rapist. In other cases the man has to pay a fine. In Cambodia, a woman is expected to be a virgin to be married, so if she has been raped, no one will marry her. So often, a victim of sexual harassment or assault will say nothing and the man will go free.’

‘It’s happening less and less, but it’s still happening,’ said Kanha. ‘If there are people around a woman or a girl who know that she has been assaulted, then they will try to speak up for her. There are laws against sexual assault but corruption is a problem. Men can just pay. Women also often just take the money because they don’t want to cause a big problem. The law is not strong enough to protect women. Many women who do speak out are often criticized and people complain about them.’

Existing rape legislation also fails to adequately define the offence of rape, most significantly by not referring in any way to the issue of consent. Rape is defined in the law as sexual penetration committed through ‘cruelty, coercion or surprise’, which in practice leads the courts to consider that rape must involve serious violence and injuries. This ignores the fact that many rapes are committed without major injury and that rapists in Cambodia often have a weapon and make threats of violence or death making victims afraid of being attacked further.

Furthermore, data shows that men do not fear beating, harassing and abusing women because there are few legal consequences. A survey undertaken of 2,000 Cambodian men, by four UN agencies, found that as many as 1 in 5 of the respondents have attempted or committed violence against women, including rape. Almost half of those admitting to perpetrating violence stated that they never faced legal consequences for their actions. 

The lack of legal protection against rape in some ways reinforce societal attitudes which tend to blame or shame women who are raped. Cambodian police also lacks specialized units, personnel and protocols to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence and to prosecute perpetrators effectively. Courts and judges also do not have sufficient knowledge to adjudicate gender-based violence cases.

Positively, there have been good efforts and initiatives from the Cambodian government to adopt guidelines and practices to improve the treatment of female victims of violence. In 1992, Cambodia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which contains provisions to reduce and eliminate violence against women. By ratifying this instrument, Cambodia committed itself to protecting Cambodian women from violence and eliminating discrimination against women.

The Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims was also passed in 2005, however many law enforcement officials and the general public, including women themselves, are not aware of the existence of this law. Much stronger steps are needed to address the problem which remains widespread through Cambodia.

For Kanha, education is the key for improving women’s lives in Cambodia. ‘Get educated,’ she said. ‘When you have a high education, you can get the high-level jobs and they cannot criticize you anymore. You have to try and know what you want to do and you have to try and get that. It doesn’t matter what other people say, have a goal and do it. I have been able to do what I have done because of my own power and courage. I don’t care what other people say, I know what I want to do and I do it. I want to encourage women to encourage each other.’

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