Gender plays an important role in Cambodian social life. In Phnom Penh, clusters of men sit in restaurants and litter the street corners. I rarely see a group of girlfriends chatting around a table for lunch.
At night this division becomes more apparent. Men meet at restaurants and karaoke bars to indulge in a night of drinking and bonding. For men, many nights in Phnom Penh end with the purchase of sex. In 2007, a study of men who frequent entertainment venues, karaoke and bars, revealed 53% had paid for sex in the last 12 months with an average of 8 partners. (The unfortunate outcome of this statistic is every time I meet a Cambodian male I question whether or not they fall into that 53%.)
Cambodian masculinity centers on group inclusion and confirmation. When a group decision is made to end a night at a brothel, one member rarely refuses because of the Cambodian tendency to avoid conflict and high levels of peer pressure. Many men admit they pay for sex because they don’t want to feel excluded from their social groups. Some report waiting outside brothels while their friends have sex, but more admit to following the pack.
In Cambodia, masculinity implies an inability to control sexual desires and actions. Many men consider sexual self-restraint biologically impossible.
Cambodians categorize females as either “good” or “bad.” The “good” woman is the one you marry and she remains sexually ignorant throughout marriage. The “bad” woman is the sex worker who will participate in “unconventional” sex acts, which means anything other than standard missionary position.
The Cambodian perception of a male’s sexual needs combined with a conservative sex culture, alcohol abuse, and an abundant supply of cheap sex workers results in severe gender-based violence and high HIV/AIDS prevalence.
Gang rape is a huge issue in Cambodia. The practice of one man hiring a sex worker and then taking her back to a guesthouse where his friends are waiting is called bauk. The girl has consented to sex with one man, but not a group. Typically, anywhere from five to ten men serially rape her in the same room. The reason? It’s economical (for the price of 1 girl, 10 men can enjoy) and it contributes to the male group bonding experience.
Surprisingly, this practice becomes more common as income and education levels rise. Cambodian university students are the most common perpetrators. They view the sex worker (the “bad” woman) as a non-human sex object and rape becomes justified because of the type of woman it involves.
But, in general, gender-based and domestic violence are widely accepted and under reported in Cambodia. Many Cambodians strongly believe males are entitled to more rights than females. In 2005, 22.5% of females reported extreme violence at the hands of their husbands.
This week I participated in a university student-training program with PHD. During one of the discussion groups, the male attitudes shocked me. For ten minutes, one of the male students explained why a girl wearing a short skirt (or “sexy attire”) deserves to be sexually assaulted. My jaw dropped, my fists clinched and then I realized his comment didn’t surprise anyone else in the room.
Violence against women is reinforced by a society of impunity. In 2005, The Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of the Victims (The DV-Law) was passed to promote a culture of non-violence. Many people read the name and assume Cambodia is at least making an effort to change the current situation, but this law doesn’t define crimes or establish specific punishments.
In 2009 a study revealed 35-45% of local authorities in Phnom Penh felt a husband was justified in engaging in extreme violence (tying up and hitting, threatening with knife or machete, burning or choking, throwing acid, stabbing or shooting) if his wife argued, did not obey, or did not show him respect. Only 13% of all respondents directly involved in a rape incident reported seeking help. Regarding other types of abuse only 2% of men and 4% of women went to the police and courts.
The numbers show the entire legal system isn’t functioning to prevent gender-based violence. Women think it’s pointless to report abuse and men aren’t threatened by any serious punishment.
Really, can a women’s empowerment NGO create sustainable social change if the legal system of the country doesn’t support its mission? The problems are so deeply rooted in cultural attitudes that legal reform seems like the most effective way to solve them. All of this has me contemplating the effectiveness of NGOs and nonprofits and strongly considering humanitarian law as a career path. For now it’s just an idea, but we’ll see where my experiences in other countries lead me…