There is a proverb in Cambodia, “Men are gold and women are fabric.” Women who lose their virginity before meeting their husband are considered used fabric, smudged and broken. In contrast, men – irrespective of their chastity, and whether they are single or married – remain gold. It is a belief that is inculcated in women from childhood through Chbab Srey, a rhythmic poem that acts as an unofficial law of silence for them.
Kraen, 43, endured daily beatings from an alcoholic husband. She never reported them, even when left with wounds to her head. It was her 20-year-old daughter, who also suffered abuse, who finally ran away from their humble house of metal sheets in Kampong Cham province, and told a community leader what was happening.
Kraen’s passive attitude is part of the legacy of Chbab Srey, which until 2007 was part of the school curriculum: Be respectful to your husband. Help yourself well and keep alive the flame of the relationship, otherwise it will burn. Do not bring outside problems indoors. Do not take internal problems away from home.
The consequence is an unequal relationship in which men can visit brothels without losing social status, while women are responsible for family affairs under the tutelage of men. While men continue to dominate the public sphere, the submission of women continues. The perfect wife remains the one that, when verbally harassed or beaten, keeps silent as Kraen did.
The only reliable data on gender violence in Cambodia comes from statistics compiled with the support of the international community, says Rodrigo Montero, advisor to the German agency of International Development Cooperation (GIZ) in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs of Cambodia.
The latest comes from a report conducted by the UN on violence against women in Southeast Asia in 2013. Twenty-two percent of the women interviewed reported that they had experienced physical violence by a male partner, but only 16 percent of men admitted to being violent.
The dishonor and tradition associated with the code of conduct that teaches girls is a scourge that allows abuses under an apparent climate of impunity. The same report showed that 96.2 percent of Cambodian men and 98.5 percent of Cambodian women think that a woman should obey her husband. And 67 percent of women believe they should tolerate violence in order to maintain the family.
“The Chbab Srey is no longer taught in schools, but some parents, especially the conservatives, continue to cite this discipline to their daughters,” says Mom Chantara Soleil, of the NGO Plan International.
Khmer Rouge Heritage
Cambodian social structures disappeared during the era of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that killed about two million people, a quarter of the population from 1975 to 1979. During those years, some Cambodians killed their parents to show loyalty to the new communist regime, others watched their neighbors die, and families disintegrated. An unknown number of women became sex slaves, prostituted themselves for survival in exchange for food or medicine, were forced to marry, or were victims of sexual violence.
Data published by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has broken the silence on abuses committed during the years of the Asian holocaust. Raksmey (not her real name), 56, was raped by soldiers. When her husband learned what had happened, he began to abuse her.
Raksmey’s case, and those of other rape victims, are being studied by the Transcultural Psychosocial Association of Cambodia (TPO). “The Khmer Rouge regime ended 35 years ago, but still has consequences even today,” says Sarath Youn, project leader of this organization.
“70 percent of the population suffers from post-traumatic symptoms. During those years, the state was destroyed. It was the law of the jungle. Violations and crimes were committed in a climate of impunity. What is inherited is a weak state, lack of capacity and fear to report abuse,” explains Montero.
In Cambodia, in cases of rape or abuse, the most common solution is to use court settlements or the traditional code of conduct that girls are taught in school. “Often these mediations doubly victimize women and do not help to repair the psychological damage caused nor penalize offenders who are overwhelmingly male,” continues Montero.
The judicial system barely functions in Cambodia, and most cases of domestic violence go unreported. Many women are discouraged from going to the authorities, doubting their chances of getting justice and fearing that they could put themselves at risk of reprisals, shame and loss of reputation within their communities.
In the case of rape, only one public hospital in each province and a few large hospitals in the capital can issue certificates that are admissible as evidence in court. Many victims in need of treatment cannot afford the cost, according to the report “Breaking the Silence,” published in 2010 by Amnesty International.
Tradition is another factor keeping women silent. Cambodian tradition places great value on virginity, a prerequisite for marriage. Women worry that going public with abuse will hamper their ability to marry. For women, the loss of her virginity causes her to become the “fabrics used” referred to in the Khmer proverb, stained and broken.
And rape is widely prevalent in Cambodia, According to the UN, 38.4 percent of Cambodian men who have committed a violation did not experience any consequences for it. And one in five Cambodian men admit to committing at least one rape, according to the report, an astonishing high figure.
Breaking the Silence
“From the day we are born we have less value than men,” says Dany Sum, a member of the Cambodian Young Women Empowerment Network.
Sum was one of three women who received support from The Asia Foundation in 2015 to find mobile solutions as part of the efforts to combat violence against women. Hers was the first solution developed. She has created an app called Krousar Koumrou (Khmer for “family model”), which consists of five short videos that explain the causes and risk factors of domestic violence, and provides organizations which victims can contact.
Another of the activists, Phat Sreytouch, has been advocating women’s safety and security in the workplace as a member of the Solidarity Association of Beer Promoters in Cambodia. Her app, 7 plus, offers games with explanations of human rights, filling the gaps many women have on the topic, given the lack of coverage in schools.
Meanwhile, Bunn Rachana, who works with the nongovernmental organization ActionAid, has designed the Safe Agent 008 app to improve safety in public places, with a preset message and GPS location to contact relatives and friends or file anonymous reports if harassed.
According to research by The Asia Foundation, 94 percent of Cambodians now own a mobile phone, including 39 percent with a smartphone. The use of mobile phones is more prevalent among men (55.7 percent) than among women (46.9 percent).
Of course, technological solutions alone will not solve the issue of domestic violence. Still, they do represent a small first step towards making Cambodian cities and homes safer for women.