Week 560 – 2008-05-18: Selective Concern About Social Issues
The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 560
It is a little over a month since the commemoration of the International Women’s Day, which provided a focus to consider not only the role of women in society but also wider issues relating to the roles and relations between women and men. Several events in Cambodia and the world have made us aware that we are facing many difficult situations, and that society is confronted with formerly unknown questions and challenges to which there are no easy answers.
The report that a self-help organization in Australia has requested that working visas be granted to women from foreign countries who want to be sex workers in Australia appears at first sight to be sensationalist – but the spokesperson of the sex workers association explained their position with a very clear argument: “We are considering an human rights approach to labor migration generally, and then any labor migration policy can include a non-discriminatory approach to sex workers as well.” This human rights approach may appear unusual to readers of the Cambodian press, considering the difficulties in life and society that sex workers here regularly face: for example, on Saturday, two women, 19 and 26 years old, were shot and killed in Phnom Penh, supposedly in an argument between the killers and the male pimp of the two women. Who is committed to care so that sex workers are not stuck in criminal dependence and complete exploitation, and who helps society to see and care about the human rights of sex workers? – Actually, hundreds of women from different countries in Asia have traveled to Australia to work as sex workers, using visas for tourists or for types of work which they cannot really do. Fortunately, there are publicly recognized organized efforts to de-criminalize the immigrant status of these women and to provide them with at least the same general legal protections that other foreign workers in Australia enjoy.
This week another Cambodian woman suffered severe burns in an acid attack. The victim, now in a hospital in Vietnam, is disfigured – she lost one eye and one ear. Almost daily there were new reports – and comments. The family of the victim reported that her long close relationship with a senior official had broken down, and that they had received a telephone threat that the blood of the whole family would be shed if they did not return the estranged lover. While the family received the requested police protection, the head of the Municipal Police was also quoted to have commented that there was no evidence of the threat, just the family’s allegations. Of course, the badly injured victim is quite some evidence. In the past, many other acid victims have remained without evidence about their attacker. In this case, suspects have been identified and one was arrested – a police officer. Also, a night club was closed; it belongs to the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Military Police, supposedly the “senior official” who is abroad, a woman. So it was a lesbian relationship which broke down and resulted in the acid attack, if the present assumptions change into information.
Meanwhile, there was discussion about the legal implications, especially relating to observations and suggestions made by the former Minister of Women’s Affairs: “Acid attacks, which often target women, should be considered a crime which is heavier than just bodily injury… The victim can be considered to belong to a special group, similar to rape victims. And the crime is heavier than stabbing a person with a knife, because it leaves scars on the body, hurts the feelings, and creates mental problems.” She made also reference to two past court cases: one woman had been sentenced to 18 years in prison for an acid attack that had killed her husband in 2004. Not much later, a man had poured acid on his wife, but he got a sentence of only six months in prison, and it was suspended, pending a five years probation period.
The Cambodian League for the Promotion & Defense of Human Rights [LICADHO] published their studies of an increasing number of acid attacks reported in newspapers – in reality there were probably more – covering three years until 2003: “Living in the Shadows – Acid attacks in Cambodia.” There was an average of one attack every 25 days, in which somebody did not want to kill, but wanted to inflict suffering and humiliation on the attacked person forever.
One year later, LICADHO followed with another report: “Rape and Indecent Assault in Cambodia” which detailed problems related to the prosecution of such frequent and massive violence through the Cambodian legal system, as well as with the challenges that victims, many of them children even under the age of ten, face in society.
In spite of the fact that such horrible stories are regularly reported in the press, we are not aware that there have been any major and continuing public attempts to deal with such violence, which seems to take place all over the country. The efforts of the former Minister of Women’s Affairs, to promote a draft law which would have imposed stiff penalties on perpetrators of acid attacks, met conservative opposition. She reported that the opponents felt that “acid attacks were the result of family discord and punishing them too severely could provoke greater disharmony.” Also, there seems still to be widespread reluctance to directly talk about such crimes when there is a case. The Cambodia Daily reported: “Women’s Affairs Minister Ing Kantha Phavi referred questions to ministry spokeswoman Sy Define, who said Thursday she was too busy to talk to a reporter. Ho Naun, chair of the National Assembly commission on women’s affairs, said she was too busy to talk to a reporter Thursday…”
But can improvement be hoped for if there is not a lot of public discussion? Isn’t this necessary even for problems that are difficult to speak about? We can observe that two issues have been taken up in two different rounds of electronic communication about cultural and moral values, although these debates have not appeared in newspapers .
The first relates to a report in Rasmei Kampuchea – which we had not even “mirrored” as it seemed to be an isolated case – about a video clip which was shared among some people by mobile phone. It is about a couple who had their 7 or 8 year old daughter take a video while they had sex. “Some people say that this couple is not right in their mind, other people say that this video was taken just for fun.” The most serious concern is about the effect on the child. A Women’s Mailing List is starting a discussion, asking for comments and suggestions on this matter, and raising concern that this is a wrong use of Information and Communication Technology.
The second is on another open email Mailing List where members of the growing community of bloggers in Cambodia are the main participants. Someone took offense at an advertisement in which an attractive women rides a new motorcycle on the market – the complaint is that the woman rather than the motorcycle really attracts attention, and there is a suggestion for “the government, especially the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information, to monitor advertisements” so that they are consistent and do not affect “the Khmer culture and disvalue the women.”
The first video clip – though objectionable – shows a kind of peaceful family situation, although it is not typically seen by others. If people think that it is necessary to discuss how to handle this one video clip case, they should surely also want to conduct social outreach and discussion about what to do about the massive availability of pornographic CDs in shops all over the country, some of it of an extremely violent nature and some showing the severe exploitation of children.
The call for the government to monitor advertisements to see whether they conform to Cambodian culture resulted in an intense exchange of opinions. Some people pointed to the general situation in the country, which has achieved a respectable degree of freedom of expression, in comparison to other countries in the region, and warned against any opening for censorship. They also raised the question of who in government – which must serve but not control the citizens, according to the Constitution – would implement such monitoring, and which criteria of “culture” would be used. This could open a much deeper debate – some people will surely want to reference the Chbap Serei – the old traditional Rules for Women – but others might believe it quite necessary to distinguish which aspects of the Chbap Serei are important and which should be rejected.
There is no way to avoid the difficult personal challenge: to strive towards personal understanding and positions which every person has to clarify for themselves, and to engage in an ongoing dialog – private and public – to find common ground. This search must include dealing with the changing ways in which women and men relate to each other. This process is not easy, and everyone can make mistakes along the path to achieving both personal responsibility and social accountability. Perhaps one mistake happens often is to focus a lot of attention on smaller issues, and less on very serious ones.