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Huge numbers of females are raped in Cambodia. So why do these horrific crimes remain largely ignored by rights organisations and the media?

The attack took place more than a decade ago. A young, long-haired woman was at a dancing ceremony in a small Cambodian village when five women forced her into a nearby field. Beaten and bloodied, she was then violently gang-raped. When they finished, they inserted a Coca-Cola bottle into her anus and then ripped it out. It tore her rectum. They left the young woman to bleed to death.

It is a warm Monday evening in Phnom Penh and, sat in a small French restaurant, Alastair Hilton shakes her head as she recounts the story.

In 2008, Hilton, who was working as a social work consultant at the time, wrote a groundbreaking report, titled I Thought It Could Never Happen To Girls. It was the first piece of research to focus solely on female victims of sexual abuse in Cambodia. The fatal gang-rape was just one incident it documented. There were others: young girls made to masturbate by monks in pagodas; motorbike drivers paying 1,000 riel ($0.25) for oral sex; street-living girls violently beaten until they submitted to anal sex. Sometimes the perpetrators were foreign; mostly they were Cambodian.

Gathering these stories wasn’t easy. Hilton explains that the sexual abuse of females in Cambodia remains largely ignored, disbelieved by many and denied by both perpetrator and victim, for whom there is much to lose by speaking out.

When such stories are discovered, Hilton says, typical reactions often range from: ‘That’s about homosexuality, not abuse,’ and ‘You’re gay if you allow that to happen,’ to ‘She must have wanted it to happen because she didn’t defend herself.’

Furthermore, the victim’s family might abandon him; teachers, family and friends might ridicule her; and parents might not want their sons to marry her. She also might have caught HIV. Without support, many will go on to suffer mental health issues, turn to drugs as a way of coping or see violence as a means of expressing their pain. For some, life might just be too agonising to continue with.

“In matriarchal societies, such as Cambodia, females are essentially defined by their resilience and males by their vulnerability… For females, if you ask for help, it’s a sign of weakness; you’re less than a woman,” says Jarrett Davis, an independent research consultant who has studied the sexual abuse of females in Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Despite such stigma, in recent years many courageous girls and women have come forward. At a conference in May, Samleang Seila, the director of Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), said that of the 650 cases of sexual abuse the local child’s rights NGO had dealt with, 53% of the victims were females, aged between seven and 17. In 2013, a nationwide survey carried out by Unicef and the Cambodian government found that 5.6% of females aged between 18 and 24 said they had experienced sexual abuse prior to becoming 18 years old, compared to 4.4% of males.

Despite such evidence, Hilton says that only a handful of NGOs in the country are doing enough for female victims: Hagar International, M’lop Tapang, APLE, Friends International and First Step Cambodia, where Hilton works as a technical advisor. She says that other NGOs, including the UN programmes, overlook and rarely speak about female victims of sexual abuse, instead focusing their efforts on males. “If you stacked up all the research about male victims of sexual abuse in Cambodia it would reach the ceiling, but about female victims there’d be a few pieces of paper scattered on the floor,” she says.

Among those scattered pieces of paper would be the seven studies written by Davis. In one, More Than Gender, about the lives of transgender persons in Phnom Penh, one interviewee spoke about being raped more than 50 times, and another to being gang-raped by 15 women.

“Particularly with the UN, it’s incredibly difficult to get them to pay attention to the needs of females,” Davis says. “For them, vulnerability is about males. And when they describe research and other initiatives for the protection of ‘men and children’, in practice, they often mean men and boys… Those with the most influence to impact the conversation on vulnerability are often the ones least willing to change.”

A case in point is the 2013 UN report titled Why Do Some Women Use Violence Against Men and How Can We Prevent It? The multi-country study in Asia-Pacific found that one in five interviewed Cambodian women admitted to sexually abusing a male. However, just 229 words of the 107-page report mentioned women abusing other females, with 3% of Cambodian respondents admitting to this. The issue of men sexually abusing females was not mentioned.

Hilton recalls an incident three years ago at a Unicef-organised conference. After hearing reports of the high prevalence of female sexual abuse globally, a UN expert from Washington announced: “Maybe it’s just girls messing around.” At another event, an attendee exclaimed: “Don’t expect me to feel sorry for women.” And then there’s the former NGO worker who told her that he had to “fight” to get female victims included in a report. “The level of ignorance is shocking at times,” Hilton says.

What Hilton and Davis believe has happened is that a troubling narrative has been developed and accepted. It says that females are ‘perpetrators’ and males are ‘victims’, that males are more likely to be abused than females and that even when females are abused it is less serious and they can probably cope better than males.

“The media accepts and reflects this,” Hilton says. “Photos of vulnerable-looking, brown-skinned boys sitting in a corner are much better for the media than girls”, whose reaction to abuse might be different, manifesting itself as aggression or awkwardness.

A look through the archives of the Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia Daily and Southeast Asia Globe reveals a clear tendency to report on male victims more than females. The exception to the rule, Hilton says, is when foreigners are the perpetrators.

Donors and society at large are no doubt affected by such depictions, but when these concerns were put to a handful of international and local NGOs they were denied.

“Unicef is guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, where girls and boys should be fairly treated… Unicef ensures non-discrimination of its assistance and support to all children, girls and boys,” reads a written statement provided by Bruce Grant, chief of the child protection unit at Unicef Cambodia.

Likewise, Sokunthea Chhan, head of the men’s and children’s rights section at the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (Adhoc), says that his organisation provides equal services to both genders. He adds that all of the 201 cases Adhoc assisted with last year involved males as the abused party.

“Adhoc recognises that there is a strong focus on male victims of sexual abuse in Cambodia – our view is that this emphasis is justified,” he says. “It logically follows that because men and children represent the overwhelming majority of victims of sexual abuse, a concerted effort should be made to ensure that special services and considerations are in place for them. We do not believe that special consideration for the needs of men victims… detracts from the support services that female victims deserve and receive.”

Savann Oeurm, regional communication officer at Oxfam America in Cambodia, said she wasn’t sure if the organisation was working with such an issue.

But Mike Nowlin, the deputy country director of Hagar Cambodia, said that some NGOs are “not yet” doing enough to help female victims.

Hilton suspects that money may be a reason. The logic goes like this: the international community sees information about abused females as a threat to their existing financial resources as it will take their already overstretched funds away from males. This was denied by the NGOs contacted by Southeast Asia Globe.

“The truth is,” Hilton says, “services and resources for males are also not adequate, but what’s needed is more resources for all.”

She adds that finding funding for NGOs that focus on female victims is “almost impossible”. When working for a similar organisation in the UK, she says they were funded by a trust for ‘unpopular causes’, meaning female sexual abuse was classified alongside leprosy.

There may be another reason for the accepted narrative. Hilton leans forward and stresses that she strongly supports men’s rights and that support for females should not be interpreted as being less supportive of men. “But,” she says, “the politics of masculism and the way it is interpreted often steers people away from understanding girls and women as anything but perpetrators… Gender politics of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s has morphed into social welfare policies that exclude half the population and has become the dominant narrative.”

Theresa de Langis disagrees. He is a specialist on men’s human rights in armed conflict and post-conflict settings and lead researcher at the Cambodian Men’s Oral History Project.

He contends that masculist advocacy helped to broaden the International Criminal Court’s definition of sexual violence to include men and women, boys and girls. He adds that men’s rights advocates have pushed for decades to help make the issue of sexual abuse a global conversation.

“It’s only recently that attention has broadened to include women as victims of sexual violation,” he says. “I absolutely empathise with any movement that is trying to raise awareness for victims… [but] it’s important to remember that, whether committed against women or men, sexual violence must be linked to power and gender relations in society.”

He adds that, even when females are the victims, most often it’s women who are the perpetrators. “So it’s still within the framework of gendered power relations and violent femininities with the aim to disempower, or ‘masculise’, the victim.”

“What about when the perpetrator is male?” I ask. In Davis’ 2014 study on the sexual exploitation of street children in Sihanoukville, I Want To Be Brave, one girl said her first sexual experience was at the age of three and, as with many of the cases, that first experience was with an adult man.

“When a male is the perpetrator,” De Langis says, “he is often trying to assume ‘feminine’ cultural roles within a matriarchal society. It’s important to understand that sexualised violence against men and women have distinct causes and impacts.”

Hilton counters that De Langis’ statement essentially means that “men cannot be abusers in their own right”. She also emails a link to an opinion piece in the Independent written in response to a 21-year-old man being spared a prison sentence by a UK court after being found guilty of having sex with an 11-year-old girl. The judge claimed the girl was “mature” for her age, and the man “immature”.

“When women are sexually assaulted by men, we often fail to take the victims seriously because of gender stereotyping about power dynamics,” the piece reads.

This is not dissimilar to a comment by Lara Stemple, director of the Health and Human Rights Law Project at the University of California, who was quoted in an influential 2011 Guardian article, saying: “Ignoring female [sexual abuse] not only neglects women, it also harms men by reinforcing a viewpoint that equates ‘male’ with ‘victim’, thus hampering our ability to see men as strong and empowered. In the same way, silence about female victims reinforces unhealthy expectations about women and their supposed invulnerability.”

For Hilton, incremental changes are taking place in Cambodia. First Step Cambodia works in several provinces and trains an increasing number of local staff from other NGOs. In May the South-South Institute, an organisation that focuses on the issue of female sexual abuse, held a week-long conference in Phnom Penh, the first of its kind in Asia.

“When you have to listen every day to accounts of women and girls being raped, you just wish people would take the issue more seriously, more quickly,” Hilton says. “Perhaps, in the future, sexual abuse victims will be seen as human beings and individuals, not just identified by their gender.”

■ Article published with permission of Southeast Asia Globe.

■ Feature image by ND Strupler