Parallel to the lack of in-depth research on the prevalence of GBV during the Khmer Rouge regime, its consequences and the need of survivors today have undergone little scrutiny. Through working with survivors, CDP and TPO have gathered some information from case studies and testimonies of individual survivors which are summarize below.
The following information reflects testimonies of GBV survivors who participated in the Women’s Hearings in Cambodia and from statements collected for a publication on GBV testimonies.
To download the Women’s Hearing Reports go to Reports.
To download the collection of testimonies “The Mistery of Sexual Violence under the Khmer Rouge Regime” go to Research and Documentation.
Impact on Individual Survivor
Survivors are still plagued by psychological and physical symptoms of their trauma, and to identify yourself as a survivor of sexual violence, particularly rape, in Cambodia is to risk being further traumatised through blame, stigma and discrimination, as well as bringing shame to yourself and your family.
A woman’s purity is highly valued in Cambodian society. Some survivors of GBV face stigmatization by their communities due to their perceived impurity, leaving them isolated from family and the support structure that comes with family bonds. Known victims of sexual violence are subject to high levels of discrimination in modern day Cambodia, and as a corollary face social isolation, economic hardship and all the negative consequences that follow. As a result, survivors have limited opportunities to talk about past abuses and to find new ways of individual and collective memorialization and mourning. Many survivors, especially those in remote communities, have little knowledge of the war crimes tribunal and have never had a chance to ‘confront their past’ in a safe setting—a situation that, for many, leads to the perpetuation of symptoms generally associated with trauma.
Another consequence commonly reported by survivors concerns the lasting health problems, especially regarding reproductive organs, due to injuries that remained untreated over a long period of time. The exacerbating factor of an inadequate health infrastructure makes it even more difficult to treat survivors who desperately need medical attention. Some survivors are forced to dedicate a large part of their income to treating problems resulting from sexual assault during conflict.
The immediate harm forced marriage survivors face, in particular women, stems from the rape they were subjected to as a means to enforce the consummation of the marriage. Victims reported on a spectrum of emotional and physical suffering, ranging from fear of the sexual intercourse because they were virgins to severe traumatization.
Additionally, many of the women, especially those from the age of 18 – 20, became pregnant as a result of the marriage. In many cases women who had to give birth during the Khmer Rouge regime were forced to continue hard physical labor with no health care and insufficient food until the day of birth and were not allowed much time to rest afterwards.
Women who separated from their partners had to face the stigmatization of no longer being a virgin, making it difficult for them to re-marry. Those with children had to encounter the hardship of child-rearing as a single mother in a post-conflict setting and were at risk of impoverishment.
Impact on Society
Harmful conduct in conflict that is not corrected can be normalized in a post conflict society. Violent and harmful practices affecting women during the Khmer Rouge era, such as forced marriage and rape can create a hostile precedent that if not corrected can seep into the mainstream of modern day Cambodia.
A culture of impunity during war-time means that sexual violence is just as accepted during peace-time. One symptom of this can be seen in modern day Cambodia where a lot of justice affected for rape victims happens behind closed doors in a mediation setting. These cases very rarely end in prosecution and the reparation sums that are meted out are small. The concept of marital rape is almost unheard of and the culture of impunity is generally considered to be just as present today as it was 30 years ago. In addition, the culture of silence carries on to the post-conflict generation, discouraging SGBV survivors today from reporting the crime. It was often in their motivation to break this cycle that rape survivors of the Khmer Rouge period who had remained silent for decades often found their courage to speak out.
Marriages arranged contrary to the will of the spouses are a Cambodian practice, established well before 1975 and which continues today. Forced marriage during the Khmer Rouge era can be seen as extension of this institutionalized harmful practice that reinforced these patriarchal cultural norms. Rather than being determined in accordance with the wishes of the parents or family, the state took control of the institution of marriage. This practice not only reflected the Khmer Rouge ideology of the ruling party taking the place of parents as guardians, but it further entrenched already established notions of gender inequality by imposing the duty of sexual obedience and confining the roles of women to being child-bearers. These notions still continue to this day.
By not allowing people to choose their partner, the Khmer Rouge stripped people of a major life decision, undermining the basic right for people to control the direction of their own lives. Such a life-changing event is difficult for people to amend, and indeed many wives still find themselves married to the same partners, in sometimes harmful situations. Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, many of those forced to marry chose to stay with their partners. Cultural and circumstantial barriers standing in the way of divorce have locked people into ill-matched unions for the rest of their lives. There is no data on the rate of domestic violence against the intimate partner experienced in such households but there have been some reports by victims supported through CDP.
It is not only the circumstances of the relationships themselves that provide a lasting destructive effect on the well-being of women forced to marry, but it is the unchecked presumptions that arise from institutionalizing a practice where women were designated to a domestic role, and were reprimanded, sometimes physically, if they neglected their obligations.