Hannah Al-Othman (guest blogger) is working in Sisophon, Cambodia, with Voluntary Service Overseas for 14 months, as a Community Education Advisor. This article stems from a piece of research on Access to Justice and Security in Cambodia.
As with many development issues, women and girls are more adversely affected than their male counterparts when attempting to access justice in Cambodia. Gender inequality is deeply ingrained in Cambodian society. A famous Cambodian proverb states that “a man is gold, a woman is a white piece of cloth”, the meaning behind which is that a man who is tarnished can be polished again and again, whereas a woman’s reputation will be stained forever.
Whilst inroads have been made recently into tackling the endemic issues of human trafficking and domestic violence in the country, sex workers and victims of sexual violence still have difficulty in accessing justice, largely because of attitudes towards women and the Cambodian emphasis on reputation and honour. Policing and support services for women affected by gender-based violence in the country are severely lacking. A recent report by Amnesty International entitled “Breaking the Silence – Sexual Violence in Cambodia” reaffirms this, stating that; “the lack of appropriate services for victims of rape is acute, and reflects social attitudes about rape and sexual violence.”
Corruption is endemic in Cambodian society, and there is a widespread culture of impunity. This, together with the ingrained gender inequality, means that perpetrators of rape are rarely convicted. Victims often struggle to pay informal “fees” requested by police, the courts, and medical services, and in many cases an unlawful out-of-court settlement will be agreed between the families of the victim and the perpetrator. In some cases, the families arrange for the victim and her alleged rapist to marry, as this outcome will protect the reputation of her and her family, and will prevent her having to move away to escape the stigma of having been raped.
Veasna, a 20 year old married mother, was allegedly raped by a monk, and her husband’s family has since not allowed her to have contact with her spouse or their children. She has had to move to the capital, Phnom Penh, to find work, while the monk remains at large, having refused to appear in court. Another woman, Mony, a 19 year old with a learning disability, was ignored by the police after reporting a rape, because her family could not afford to pay the amount of money required to secure an arrest (around £15). She now lives in constant fear of the perpetrator, who was never brought to justice. These are not isolated incidents, but common examples of the issues faced by victims of rape in Cambodia today.
Cambodia has ratified most key human rights treaties, and Article 31 of the 1993 Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia incorporates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the international human rights treaties that Cambodia has ratified, including CEDAW in 1992. The Cambodian Constitution states that; “The Kingdom of Cambodia shall recognise and respect human rights as stipulated in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the covenants and conventions related to human rights, women’s and children’s rights.” Rape has been recognised as a form of torture under international law, when committed by state agents, or whereby the state fails to investigate and prosecute violence against women, thereby breaching its human rights obligations to prevent cruel and degrading treatment . However, despite ratifying international human rights treaties, Cambodia exhibits a flagrant disregard for victims of sexual violence. The state even goes as far as to play an active part in some cases, particularly where sex workers are involved. Sex workers are routinely and arbitrarily arrested, often after outbreaks of Sexual Transmitted Infections are reported, and often with the use of violence and threats. Many of these arrests violate international law, as well as Cambodia’s own criminal code, and women are often detained without trial, and subjected to gang rapes in detention or “rehabilitation” centres, with some being beaten to death.
The issues faced by victims of sexual violence permeate the entire legal system, from the legislators to the police, with a strong male dominance in both the legal profession and the criminal justice system. The Cambodian Ministry of Justice has created a Gender Mainstreaming Action Plan, which was implemented from 2009, and will run until 2013. The action plan states that in 2008 courts had improved the gender balance compared with 2003, but still had only 21 female judges to 167 males, one female prosecutor to 32 males, and 103 female court clerks to 482 males. The design of the courts, and the staff working within them, have little concept of victim-friendly trials, the judiciary, like the police force, is rife with corruption, and furthermore there is no provision of legal aid by the Government, whilst NGOs providing legal aid services, such as the Cambodian Defenders Project, are overburdened. Thus even if a perpetrator is arrested, the chances of a conviction being secured are slim to none.
Cambodia has recently passed a new penal code, providing the country with an ideal opportunity to improve the way in which it treats victims of sexual violence, and many activists fighting for gender equality in the country are pinning their hopes on this new criminal code to bring about a change in the way that victims are treated. However, the problem appears to be with law enforcement, rather than legislation. Until attitudes towards women in Cambodia change and the problem of widespread corruption is addressed it is unlikely that the situation for victims of sexual violence will improve with the introduction of the new law alone.
Inroads are slowly being made into tackling the issues of domestic violence and sex trafficking, and the Cambodian Government will need to make a similar concerted effort to address the issue of sexual violence before the situation improves. There is currently limited public condemnation of rape by the Government, and this attitude of implicit acceptance, which is mirrored throughout Cambodian society, needs to change. There needs to be effective investigation and prosecution of perpetrators, and adequate social and medical services for victims. Only then will the situation improve for victims of sexual violence in Cambodia.
 Raquel Marti de Mejia v. Perú, Case 10.970, Report No. 5/96, Inter-Am.C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.91 Doc. 7 at 157 (1996); Aydin v Turkey judgment of 25 September 1997 (Application 57/1996/676/866) European Court of Human Rights, paragraph 86.