Rape on the rise in Cambodia: Amnesty

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – For Meas Veasna, as with many survivors of sexual violence, rape brought only the beginning of the horror.

Veasna, a 20-year-old married mother of two, was allegedly raped by a monk in her home province of Prey Veng in June 2009. Her life since that time has fallen apart; because of the stigma Cambodian culture attaches to being raped, her husband’s family will not allow her to see him or her children. She has been forced to move to Phnom Penh on her own to find work. Meanwhile, the monk remains free, never having been tried in court because he refuses to appear.

All across Cambodia, this sort of impunity enables rapists and victimizes women over and over, according to a recent report from Amnesty International that found that incidents of sexual violence — especially the rape of children — have increased in recent years. Police documented 468 cases of rape, attempted rape and sexual harassment between November 2008 and November 2009, a 24-percent increase over the previous year, Amnesty reported. The portion of rapes reported to human rights organization ADHOC that involved children jumped from 67 percent in 2008 to 78 percent in 2009, and many more rapes go unreported, according to Amnesty.

ADHOC, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, is an NGO that lobbies for better policies for providing health and education services, improving labor and food condition, reducing poverty and preventing land-grabbing.

The incident involving Veasna occurred a few weeks after she had given birth to her second child and went to Wat Kaley pagoda for a ritual involving holy water. While she was there, a monk allegedly drugged and raped her, fleeing only when Veasna’s husband came to her rescue.

Police took her statement, but since then nothing has happened, Veasna said in an interview last week. She wants justice, but is beginning to despair, as the monk refuses to appear in court and investigations have ground to a halt. Amnesty’s report suggests that a guilty verdict might vindicate Veasna and allow her to return to her family, but she has her doubts.

“I want the police to arrest him, but I think it’s useless for me to continue with the case; every time I go to the police, they question me, but then there is just silence,” Veasna said. “I think my husband cannot take me back, because in his eyes I am dirty.”

Her husband continues to be supportive, exerting what little pressure he can to urge police to investigate and the courts to act.

That a rape survivor would emerge from the incident with her reputation in tatters is not unique to Veasna, according to Sina Vann, team leader for Voices for Change, a program of the Somaly Mam Foundation. The Somaly Mam Foundation is an NGO that seeks to combat human trafficking through advocacy, education and by empowering survivors to tell their stories to the world.

Vann herself, now 26, was taken from her home in Vietnam at the age of 12 and sold into sex slavery in Cambodia before being rescued as a teen by AFESIP (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations), another organization co-founded by Somaly Mam. Young girls or women who are raped often turn to sex work because they see no other option given the stigma that accompanies rape, she said.

Ironically, convicted rapists who gave interviews to Amnesty International said they experienced no stigma for their crimes.

“I haven’t heard of anyone looking down on me in the village, and not here in the prison either; there are so many here who have done bad things,” one man named Meng, who was convicted and sentenced to 14 years for the rape of two girls, ages 9 and 10, told Amnesty International.

The report urged the Cambodian government to publicly condemn rape and other sexual violence, and to end the complacency that contributes to the impunity rapists enjoy. The government must change its policies to ensure that police investigate allegations of rape and that the courts hold rapists accountable, the report said. Cambodia, it said, also should address the government’s failures to provide victims with adequate reparations, including health and psychosocial services.

For now, NGOs such as ADHOC are trying to pick up the slack. When she found herself essentially homeless, Veasna went to the organization, which agreed to represent her in court, and helped her find a job in Phnom Penh working with needy children.

But Veasna longs for her old life.

“It’s hard for me now, because I used to have my children. I used to have my husband with me,” she said. “But now, I am all alone, and lonely.”