Cambodia is among the many nations notable for their high numbers of sexual and domestic abuse cases, being that about one in five Cambodian women have been subjected to sexual or domestic violence. Domestic violence and gender-based abuse has become a significantly complex issue in Cambodia, as culture and a complicated national history plays a suggestive role in why women are so widely regarded as inferior to men throughout the country, leading to a broad and convoluted issue of gender-based abuse that can not be solved with a single solution.
Cambodia, categorized as a Least Developed Country (LDC) by the United Nations, had a dramatic change in social structure when the communist Khmer Rouge regime had come into power in April 1975, whose merciless and brutal leadership had garnered global attention as more than two million Cambodian citizens died as a result of the severely harsh dictatorship. During the era of Khmer Rouge rule, violence was common and perceived as a necessity. While a significant number of Cambodians had begin to murder their own parents and friends as a symbol of loyalty to the communist regime, women were forced to prostitute themselves or act as sex slaves in order to provide themselves and their families with necessities to live, such as food, water, and medicine. Additionally, as violence continued to be encouraged and even glorified by the emerging Khmer culture, a rising number of women became victims of sexual and domestic violence, illustrating the creation of a society and environment where violence against women was considered inevitable and where women were undoubtedly regarded as subordinate to men. While the regime had fallen from over 35 years ago, its effects and consequences can still be observed in modern Cambodia, as the healing nation suffers from a barely functioning judicial system and a society with lingering ideologies of those made prevalent during Khmer Rouge rule. The Khmer culture shaped the way women were raised and treated since the regime’s end, as highlighted by national traditions like the popularly taught code of conduct for women, entitled Chbab Srey, which teaches subserviency to women and the common Cambodian proverb, “Men are gold and women are cloth”.
With the combination of both environmental, historical, and cultural factors, domestic violence has become a widespread and familiar issue within the country. According to a study done by the UN in 2013, about 96 percent of Cambodian men and 98.5 percent of Cambodian women believe that a women must obey her husband. This same study also revealed that about 67 percent of Cambodian women believe that a women must tolerate violence in order to maintain the family. Cambodian culture, like numerous others throughout the world, has pushed for women to take roles in the domestic sphere, making family and the preservation of family a high priority for women. Additionally, men have developed into the principal source of income for families in Cambodia, making it even more difficult for women to resist domestic abuse and to leave their life at home. The widespread acceptance of domestic violence as a normality in Cambodia has had devastating effects. In 2015, a UN report shows that only half of all Cambodian women who had suffered from severe domestic violence had sought health care or medical attention for their injuries. Cambodia’s issue with rampant poverty has also played a significant role in the treatment of women, as their has been a dangerous lack of funding for organizations and government officials that could address domestic abuse cases and has made huge impacts on Cambodia’s drinking problem, with about 66% of surveyed women have admitted to have suffered from alcohol-induced violence from their husbands.
While domestic abuse is a prevailing issue in Cambodia, sexual abuse outside of domestic settings is a familiar problem within the nation. While prostitution is illegal in Cambodia, the country’s high poverty rates and history with sex work has created an environment where prostitution is prevalent, with an estimated 55,000 prostitutes currently working in the country. Violence against sex workers is extremely common in Cambodia, with the most frequent perpetrators being customers and police officers, and the abuse of these workers have hardly been condemned as sex work in Cambodia is culturally shameful, illegal, and socially disgraceful. The most common sexual abuse cases with prostitutes in the country is gang rape, commonly referred to as ‘bauk’ in Cambodia, and is considered socially acceptable, while prostitution is not. Cambodia, known as a sex tourism destination, has also created an environment that enables human trafficking and child sex slavery to become common occurrences, with a UNICEF study showing that over 35 percent of Cambodia’s sex workers are children under the age of 16.
While the presence sexual violence and abuse of women continues to loom over the nation of Cambodia, continual efforts by branches of the United Nations, such as the UNDP, and independent organizations are working to make significant changes. In compliance with the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which sets out the framework for specific social, environmental, and economic goals for nations to strive towards in order to strengthen universal and create a brighter global future, the UNDP and other groups are working to combat sexual-based abuse, whether it be through tackling root causes of the issue, such as poverty, or providing vital education to women in developing nations.
Founder and President of the Heart2Art Project