Cambodia: women and war

Devi Leiper
27 November 2007

by Devi Leiper


With the Khmer Rouge Tribunals underway, Cambodia is frequently revisited in the media. Stories of murder, violence, and fear are used to paint Cambodia's recent past, and I wonder what this means for the present. Are the tribunals a symbolic end to war? The last step towards achieving peace? Some see the tribunals as a long-awaited act of justice, and others argue it only opens old wounds. Thinking about Cambodia's experience of war and peace, today, at the beginning of the 16 days campaign and its thematic questions on the continuing obstacles and challenges for ending gender-based violence, what do these tribunals really mean to the women of Cambodia?

Devi Leiper lived in Cambodia for most of her life, but is now a Masters Candidate in International Development and Management at Lund University, Sweden.

Trying hard to always remember where she came from even though she is looking to explore gender and post-conflict situations in East Africa. Always inspired by her mother, Mu Sochua, Nobel Peace Prize nominated human rights activist and first female Secretary General of a political party in Cambodia.Scholarly interest in the lives of women and gender-based violence during the KR regime is fairly new and scarce; recent inquiry has shown that gender-based violence was more common than previously believed. Incidences of forced marriage, sexual abuse, and gender-specific punishment are beginning to emerge. Will these be dealt with in the tribunal? Several witnesses and victims have begun to share their experiences of this violence, but a lack of serious attention towards these issues continues to make history incomplete and unexplained. What are the reasons for this?

In the social upheaval and chaos that accompanies war, perhaps rape and other forms of sexual violence against women are to be expected. The normal social and legal protections afforded to women are likely to break down, and thus gender-based violence in the Cambodian context is a result of uncontrolled and unique circumstances. But if this violence is viewed as exceptional, as part of the collateral damage of war, what is to be said about the gender-based violence that continues in Cambodia today:

- "Welcome to the Rape Camp! Welcome to the Year 2000! Welcome to Kampuchea, Its not just live video chat, Its an international experience!" is one porn site's greeting and is succinctly telling of the international agreement that allows for a steady supply of sex across the globe. Within the global sex trade, Cambodian women are abducted from rural countryside and forcibly exported as tradable goods.

- Cambodia's large number of commercial sex workers are increasingly victims of gang rape. "One girl, six boys, with no wife, it's ok" says one man interviewed in a local newspaper. In these cases, raping a sex worker is not even classified as violence at all, and has become a rite of passage for many young men in Phnom Penh.

- The prevalence of domestic violence illustrates that strong distinction between public and private spheres in Cambodia has yet to be overcome. A historical sex-right over women's bodies allows policemen, judges, and the entire legal system to justify the impunity over gender-based violence within the home.

Juxtaposed against this situation for women in Cambodia, the tribunals force me to question where the line between war and peace is actually drawn in the Cambodian women's experience. Faced with the gender-based insecurities mentioned previously, and the ongoing indifference that allows gender-based violence to be so widespread, it could be argued that women are experiencing a different kind of war. A war that is almost invisible when it comes to more conventional 'politics'. Ending gender-based violence and achieving peace for women and men, means recognizing that women and their bodies are caught in ongoing conflict.

Picture: mythicaldude flickR account

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