Why female migrants are prone to sexual abuse in Cambodia

Despite having a raft of measures to prevent gender-based crimes in Cambodia, women continue to face rampant sexual abuse and harassment. Experts say strict implementation of laws is needed to curb the problems.

Cambodia's bustling capital Phnom Penh is full of places filled with excitement, entertainment and opportunities. These features have acted as a significant pull factor, attracting huge numbers of people from across the country and doubling the city's population over the past decade.

The primary motivation for most of these migrants coming to the capital is to seek either education or work. Although this rural-urban migration is having a positive impact on the Southeast Asian country's economy, it has also created numerous problems, particularly in the case of female migrants.

Among the major issues they encounter in the city are sexual abuse, harassment and assaults. The problems hinder equal female participation in society, keeping girls and women from realizing their full potential. They obstruct their access to education, employment, public services and recreational activities.

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"As people are scared of sexual crimes, those in the rural areas do not want to send their daughters to the city to pursue education," said Tepphallin Ou, vice president of Cambodia Food and service Worker Federation (CFWF), a trade union. "It reinforces the Khmer past tradition of not letting women pursue higher education," she told DW.

Politics | 17.02.2017

Constantly worried

A 2013 report titled Women and Migration in Cambodia released by the Ministry of Planning revealed that 58.5 percent of the female migrants in Phnom Penh sought employment. It also revealed that 32.2 percent of women who migrated to Phnom Penh were employed as garment workers, while another 10.3 percent as service or entertainment workers. And it is those who have to work night shifts that experience harassment and assaults the most.

Tepphalin said: "Those female workers have neither physical nor psychological security, since they are constantly worried about their safety when walking home on the unlighted streets at night." She added that some drug users also dwell on the same streets, making the women feel even more unsafe.

Another issue relates to the phenomenon of victim blaming, which remains widespread in Cambodia. When it comes to sexual crimes, society usually is ready to hurl the blame toward women.

"When girls and women are assaulted or raped, they are somehow found to be at fault. Even in 2017 Cambodian women are still doubted and blamed for the violence carried out against them, sometimes even by those whose duty it is to protect their rights," Boramey Hun, country director of the NGO Action Aid Cambodia, told DW.

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Women account for a significant proportion of the Cambodian workforce and their numbers are rising. They play a critical role in the nation's economy, with their enormous contribution to sectors such as the garment industry. The Cambodian government recognizes this, which is why it often claims women are the "backbone" of Cambodia's economy.

But merely issuing such statements, while overlooking women's safety concerns, is unlikely to be helpful in advancing the cause of female security and empowerment.

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To confront the problems, the government has come up with several laws and measures. But lax implementation erodes their effectiveness in tackling the issues and protecting the women. "We demand that the physical environment we live in is made safer and more responsive to our needs, and that employers and public service providers work closely with us to make the lives of young urban women safer and more secure," Boramey said.

"In practice, this means better lighting in our streets, safer public toilets and amenities. It also means secure, quality and affordable housing, especially for our sisters working in the garment and entertainment sectors."

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Beyond physical threats

The way media outlets in Cambodia report on the topic of violence against women is also a source of concern. In the case of rapes and other forms of abuse, the victims' identities are often disclosed; the gory pictures are not censored and are even shared publicly on social media.

And those practices, according to experts, make the victims and their families even more stigmatized.

"The media need to review their ethics and practices, and stop putting the blame on the victims," Tepphallin stressed, adding that the victims and their families still need to be treated with dignity.

Concerning this issue, Cambodia's Ministry of Information, together with the Ministry of Women's Affairs, has recently developed a code of conduct that media outlets have to adhere to when reporting about violence against women.

The new code bans media outlets from describing in detail how a criminal act such as rape or assault has been committed by the perpetrator. It also outlaws them from disclosing victims' identities and directs them to avoid reporting in a manner that puts the victims at fault.

Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia (GADC), views it as a positive development. "It is a good move by the government, but I want to see actual practice and implementation, not just a public declaration. But for that I don't have much hope."