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CAMBODIA: Rape Victims Need Better Protection from New Penal Code

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Mar 9 2010 (IPS) - Cambodia’s new penal code, which comes into force later this year, should be accompanied by stronger law enforcement measures if the country’s women and girls are to be better protected from rape, says the global rights lobby Amnesty International (AI).

“The introduction of the new penal code is an ideal opportunity to change the culture and improve the criminal justice system,” revealed Brittis Edman, Cambodia researcher for AI. “The problem has always been law enforcement rather than the law itself.”

“Rape has to be seen as a criminal issue,” she added during a telephone interview from Phnom Penh.

The new law will replace the 1992 law introduced by the United Nations after the country returned to peace following over two decades of brutal conflict, including the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s that was responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people and destruction of the South-east Asian country’s social structures.

Amnesty International’s call for the Cambodian government to address “extrajudicial settlements, weak prosecution and widespread corruption in cases of sexual violence” comes with the London-based body’s launch this week of a report about “rapes of women and girls appear to be increasing.”

“From November 2008 to November 2009, police had recorded 468 cases of rape, attempted rape and sexual harassment, a 2.4 percent increase over the previous year,” revealed the 60-page report launched Monday in the Cambodian capital. “Data of cases reported to both police and NGOs (non-governmental organisation) indicate that an increasing number of victims are children.”

“In 2009, 78 percent of rape victims turning to (a) human rights (NGO) were children, compared to 67 percent in 2008,” noted the report, ‘Breaking the Silence – Sexual Violence in Cambodia’. “It is not known if this increase accurately reflects the real situation, or the fact that rape of under-18s is more likely to be reported.”

Vanna was among the 30 victims Amnesty researchers interviewed. In 2009, the 15-year-old was raped by a fellow villager. “Her parents reported the crime to the police, who arrested the man,” added the report. “However, after court officials and police had negotiated an extrajudicial settlement whereby the perpetrator paid money to the family, he was released.”

Her freedom meant that Vanna had to take refuge in a shelter for victims. “I don’t dare to go home. The perpetrator was released because he paid a bribe and that’s not right,” she was quoted as having told AI.

Mom was another victim. Two men raped her five times in 2005, when she was 11 years old. “Her mother went to the district police, where the police chief asked her for a 10 U.S.-dollar bribe to pay for ‘the investigation and stationery’,” reported AI. “When she did not have the money he requested, the police chief asked her to meet him at a hotel room, suggesting that sex in lieu of money would facilitate the investigation of the rape of the daughter.”

“Police initially didn’t help us at all. They are very hard to trust, and you really need NGO assistance to get proper police assistance,” the victim’s mother told AI. “We were afraid to turn to the police: we know they harass, intimidate and torture people and extort weak and poor families.”

Rape in Cambodia exposes a darker side of the country where “society is still matriarchal, culturally speaking,” remarked Chea Vannath, former president of the Centre for Social Development, a Phnom Penh-based think tank. “In majority of families, women are the bosses.”

But sexual violence is driven by specific factors, she said during an IPS interview. “Drinking alcohol, pornography, which is widespread, drugs and even poverty are responsible for the violence against women.”

Victims from poor families are often unable to get justice, she added, echoing a view maintained by AI, which stated, “Protection of the rights of rape victims in poverty is particularly weak. As the Cambodian justice system displays a bias against the poor, poor women and girls appear to have disproportionately limited access to justice.”

AI’s push for stronger laws and enforcement to protect women in Cambodia is also echoed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in a region-wide assessment to mark International Women’s Day, celebrated on Mar. 8. “While Asia and the Pacific can take pride in the region’s vibrant economic transformation in recent decades, this has not translated into progress on gender equality,” the U.N. agency’s assessment said.

“In South Asia, almost half the countries have no laws at all on domestic violence. In the Pacific the picture is even worse, with more than 60 percent of the countries without domestic violence legislation,” said Cherie Hart, UNDP’s regional communications advisor.

“In East Asia, the situation is better with more than three-quarters of the countries with drafted legislation on domestic abuse,” she explained. “Some of the countries which have drafted legislation within the past few years include Indonesia, Laos, the Republic of Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.”

“However, the Asia and Pacific region as a whole falls far behind where it should be on basic issues like protecting women from violence or upholding entitlements to property,” she added. “One barrier is from the laws themselves, which may be discriminatory. A second barrier is restricted access to the legal system.”

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