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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Gang Rape Pervasive Across Cambodia

By Rachel Snyder

The tiny Southeast Asian country of Cambodia has seen explosive economic growth in the past five years.

Skyscrapers will soon dominate the country's skyline and predictions of oil wealth offer hope that the country is finally beginning to outgrow its grisly past.

But a chilling form of recreation — gang rape — reminds everyone that for Cambodia, the past may yet still loom.

One Woman's Story

Mao, 18, is from Pursat, a small village with a few hundred families. Through a translator at the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center in the capital of Phnom Phen, she says she is too ashamed to say her last name.

"There was a wedding in Pursat, and I went to participate," she says. "At the wedding this man asked me to dance and I went to dance with him."

The man then said he had a friend with a question for her, and he led her from the wedding to a field nearby.

"When he dragged me out, there was his two friends with him and three more were waiting in the fields," Mao says.

Two of the men raped her before others were alerted by her screams. Eight days later, she told her story from a safe house.

What happened to Mao has a name in Cambodia: bauk. Its literal translation means "plus," but it also means gang rape, a chilling social phenomenon among young men in the city.

A few years ago, a local nongovernmental organization put together a video of victims and perpetrators. In the video, one voice is distorted to hide the victim's identity. This girl says she was raped and sodomized by four men in a guest house. The next morning, she says, she called the police, but they told her she had no evidence.

'Socially Acceptable'

David Wilkinson, a consultant living in Cambodia, and his colleagues were studying condom usage among college boys in 2002 when they found that bauk was a socially accepted form of recreation for young middle-class Khmer men.

"They described it as a situation where one or two young men would procure the services of, generally, a street-based sex worker, then they would take her to a guest house to have sex, and when they got there they would have arranged for between four and 10 of their friends to be waiting," Wilkinson says. "And they would coerce or try and induce the woman to have sex with all of them. Very often she was verbally or physically abused and would then be subsequently gang raped."

Generally, bauk happens to sex workers, but it can also happen to what the men in Wilkinson's studies call "normal" girls — girls like Mao.

"There is growing indication that the groups of victims extend now beyond those involved in sex work, and we've got stories of school girls, garment factory workers, middle-class young women being gang raped," Wilkinson says.

Napsarin Sreynoth, the secretary general of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center, says prostitutes don't seek help in their shelters because they think bauk is part of their job. But other bauk victims, like Mao, do come.

"Some victim, they are under 15 years old," says Tong Sophrach, who worked with Wilkinson on the initial research. "Every month that we receive the gang rape or rape bauk and the victim — they are from Pursat, Kompang, Chnnam. It everywhere happen in Cambodia."

Tong says they interviewed taxi drivers in rural areas and found evidence of bauk in at least 21 of Cambodia's 24 provinces. Tong adds that the young men who commit the rapes think it's funny.

Possible Explanations For 'Bauk' Proliferation

Wilkinson says there are many possible reasons why bauk has proliferated. Many believe it's a male-bonding experience: It costs about $15 to hire a prostitute for the night and paying for just one prostitute saves money. There are also few recreational opportunities for young people.

Wilkinson says the bauk phenomenon may be linked to the genocide in 1975-1979, when up to 1.5 million people died from starvation, disease or execution.

"It's difficult to say whether this phenomenon is a result of the deprivations imposed by the Khmer Rouge regime, but what you've got is a generation of young people now whose parents didn't really experience adolescence and so have no real models or norms on which to base how to be good parents," he says. "And it's possible this has had an effect on how they relate to their sons."

In addition, Wilkinson says, bauk may be triggered by the kind of pornography available in Phnom Penh, which he says is the worst that researchers have seen.

'An Aberration Of Khmer Society'

The government, however, blames outside influences.

"Rape itself is very often happening in Cambodia due to the influence of the Western culture with the illegal entry or import of pornography film," says You Ay, from the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

But many fault the government for not denouncing bauk more publicly. Tong says that while there have been arrests, he knows of no prosecutions specifically for bauk. Wilkinson, who has lived in Cambodia for a decade, says he believes a high-level government condemnation of bauk could begin to solve the problem.

"It's really just an aberration of Khmer society, and so as such, it wouldn't be difficult for the political leaders to put a stop to it," he says. "With the backing of senior levels of government this would happen."

In Wilkinson's follow-up research, he asked young people what most concerned them. The girls' responses were all about avoiding rape.

"The interview with the boys was more intriguing," he says. "They wanted to know how they could either coerce or bribe the girl afterward not to take action against them."

A famous adage in Cambodia says that men are gold and women are cloth. The former is easily cleaned; the latter easily stained. Mao says she feels this stain. She is angry and ashamed.

"Everybody, you know, none of us are perfect and I also feel it's my fault because I wanted to go to the wedding," Mao says.

For now at least, Mao says she can't go home. "I do not dare to think about the future," she says.

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The Evil Behind the Smiles


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia

Western men who visit red-light districts in poor countries often find themselves surrounded by coquettish teenage girls laughingly tugging them toward the brothels. The men assume that the girls are there voluntarily, and in some cases they are right.

But anyone inclined to take the girls’ smiles at face value should talk to Sina Vann, who was once one of those smiling girls.

Sina is Vietnamese but was kidnapped at the age of 13 and taken to Cambodia, where she was drugged. She said she woke up naked and bloody on a bed with a white man — she doesn’t know his nationality — who had purchased her virginity.

After that, she was locked on the upper floors of a nice hotel and offered to Western men and wealthy Cambodians. She said she was beaten ferociously to force her to smile and act seductive.
“My first phrase in Khmer,” the Cambodian language, “was, ‘I want to sleep with you,’ ” she said. “My first phrase in English was” — well, it’s unprintable.

Sina mostly followed instructions and smiled alluringly at men because she would have been beaten if men didn’t choose her. But sometimes she was in such pain that she resisted, and then she said she would be dragged down to a torture chamber in the basement.

“Many of the brothels have these torture chambers,” she said. “They are underground because then the girls’ screams are muffled.”

As in many brothels, the torture of choice was electric shocks. Sina would be tied down, doused in water and then prodded with wires running from the 220-volt wall outlet. The jolt causes intense pain, sometimes evacuation of the bladder and bowel — and even unconsciousness.

Shocks fit well into the brothel business model because they cause agonizing pain and terrify the girls without damaging their looks or undermining their market value.

After the beatings and shocks, Sina said she would be locked naked in a wooden coffin full of biting ants. The coffin was dark, suffocating and so tight that she could not move her hands up to her face to brush off the ants. Her tears washed the ants out of her eyes.

She was locked in the coffin for a day or two at a time, and she said this happened many, many times.

Finally, Sina was freed in a police raid, and found herself blinded by the first daylight she had seen in years. The raid was organized by Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who herself had been sold into the brothels but managed to escape, educate herself and now heads a foundation fighting forced prostitution.

After being freed, Sina began studying and eventually became one of Somaly’s trusted lieutenants. They now work together, in defiance of death threats from brothel owners, to free other girls. To get at Somaly, the brothel owners kidnapped and brutalized her 14-year-old daughter. And six months ago, the daughter of another anti-trafficking activist (my interpreter when I interviewed Sina) went missing.

I had heard about torture chambers under the brothels but had never seen one, so a few days ago Sina took me to the red-light district here where she once was imprisoned. A brothel had been torn down, revealing a warren of dungeons underneath.

“I was in a room just like those,” she said, pointing. “There must be many girls who died in those rooms.” She grew distressed and added: “I’m cold and afraid. Tonight I won’t sleep.”

“Photograph quickly,” she added, and pointed to brothels lining the street. “It’s not safe to stay here long.”

Sina and Somaly sustain themselves with a wicked sense of humor. They tease each other mercilessly, with Sina, who is single, mock-scolding Somaly: “At least I had plenty of men until you had to come along and rescue me!”

Sex trafficking is truly the 21st century’s version of slavery. One of the differences from 19th-century slavery is that many of these modern slaves will die of AIDS by their late 20s.

Whenever I report on sex trafficking, I come away less depressed by the atrocities than inspired by the courage of modern abolitionists like Somaly and Sina. They are risking their lives to help others still locked up in the brothels, and they have the credibility and experience to lead this fight. In my next column, I’ll introduce a girl that Sina is now helping to recover from mind-boggling torture in a brothel — and Sina’s own story gives hope to the girl in a way that an army of psychologists couldn’t.

I hope that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will recognize slavery as unfinished business on the foreign policy agenda. The abolitionist cause simply hasn’t been completed as long as 14-year-old girls are being jolted with electric shocks — right now, as you read this — to make them smile before oblivious tourists.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.
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