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Report finds high rates of underage rape in Cambodia this year

October 12, 2009

End Child Prostitution, Abuse and Trafficking in Cambodia (ECPAT – Cambodia) just published its third quarter report on sexual violence in Phnom Penh, which compiles reports of rape from the five leading local newspapers, aggregates the data, and describes statistical trends. The study found that of the 216 rape cases reported so far this year, 137 (61%) of the victims were underage.

Of course, 216 cases is extremely low, due to underreporting to police and publishing in the news. I’m curious about the study’s methodology, since I wonder if rapes reported to the police and published in the newspaper are a representative sample. Regardless, the proportion of child rapes is staggeringly high and emphasizes the need for greater protection of Khmer children.

The latest report has not been translated into English yet, but the newspaper story about it, as well as the second quarter installment of the same study, prominently blame pornography for the high rates of rape. This conclusion is neither surprising nor unique; far too often, the violent sex portrayed in porn glorifies men’s physical and sexual domination of women. Such portrayals of sex are especially problematic in Cambodia, where the mainstream media does not depict any sexual encounters, thereby offering men little alternative to the suggestion that sex is always violent. I’m not positive where the porn that most Khmer men watch is from, but given widespread piracy of Western DVDs, I’m sure that Khmer men have access to porn from the US and Europe.

I’m especially interested in the way that the newspaper article frames this story. Here is the opening sentence:

Phnom Penh: The increasing number of rapes indicates that Khmer tradition is falling apart under the influence of bad foreign culture, spread through porn videos played at some coffee shops, and through drug abuse.

It’s unclear to me whether the opinion expressed here is that of the reporter or ECPAT – Cambodia; regardless, rape is being presented as contrary to Khmer culture and as a foreign imposition, primarily through the prevalence of pornography.

I’m glad to see the study seeking to identifying social causes of rape culture, but blaming pornography, “the influence of glitzy culture,” and “the influence of bad foreign culture,” as the newspaper report and the study do, are simply not enough. Does violent pornography promote a culture of physical and sexual abuse? Sure. But plenty of men – and women – watch pornography daily without raping anyone. This explanation is overly simplistic, especially given the report’s recommended actions for change. The first recommendation proposes greater education about the law. In theory, I support any effort to equip the public, especially the disenfranchised, with more information about Cambodia’s laws and legal system. But the notion that such a campaign will result in fewer rapes seems ridiculous. I can’t imagine that learning about the illegality of child rape would serve as a significant deterrent for someone who would commit that act. Strengthened law enforcement, the next recommendation, is another good idea in theory. In practice though, the police force must earn the public’s trust, broken by corruption and a poor track record for protecting women and children, before greater numbers or a stronger mandate will make difference in its ability to address rape cases.

The final suggestion is that parents take better care of their children:

All parents have to be very careful about the safety of their sons and daughters, especially when they are very young.

This made me really angry at first; I felt like it was a variation of victim blaming that removed responsibility from the rapists and instead placed it on parents. Beyond that, doesn’t it seem like an extremely obvious statement? I’m not saying that every parent loves his or her children purely and unconditionally; that romanticized notion of parenthood is certainly incompatible with frequent reports of parents selling their young teenage daughters to foreign men in Phnom Penh. But I just don’t think an NGO vaguely urging parents to better protect their parents will actual have an impact on parenting behavior.

What could make a difference is educating parents and communities about rape, especially who rapists are: ANYONE. As Melissa wrote in a brilliant post on rape culture last week, ” the thing about rapists is that they rape people.” Contrary to the pervasive narrative of stranger rape, most rapes are committed by people who know their victims. In the 216 cases studied, 196 of the rapists were family members, boyfriends, neighbors, or friends of the victim. I haven’t learned too much about rape culture in Cambodia yet, but I suspect that the incorrect belief that most rapes are committed by strangers is common here like in other parts of the world, including the U.S. At the very least, perhaps education like this would encourage families to take their children seriously if they speak honestly about their experiences of sexual assault by people they know.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2009 1:57 pm

    I am happy that somebody takes some of the things up critically which I felt that they needed to be discussed critically. As editor of the Mirror, I present to the public – in English – what some Khmer newspapers write.

    I don’t share the opinion of the writer: “The increasing number of rapes indicates that Khmer tradition is falling apart under the influence of bad foreign culture…” Friends tell me that sexual activities by older male relatives – uncles targeting nieces etc. – are not new at all – and I doubt (though I do not have proof) that all the violent rape and rape-murder cases in the provinces are triggered by “foreign” videos.

    And I appreciate very much your reaction to “All parents have to be very careful about the safety of their sons and daughters, especially when they are very young.” – Some weeks ago, the Phnom Penh governor was even more precise: girls should be kept at home in the evening. No word about the boys and men who need to be restrained, and punished, if they act with violence.

  2. October 12, 2009 2:07 pm

    “But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. That makes it difficult to plan the day.” – Is this just a problem of time management? Or does it mean the two are in contradiction? I hope not.


  3. October 13, 2009 5:29 am

    Regarding the need for parents to protect children, wouldn’t it be better to have programs to make sure that parents have the resources to do that?

  4. October 13, 2009 8:22 pm

    Could you please elaborate – what kind of resources do you think would be needed and useful for parents, in Cambodia, in 2009?

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