Gender Human Rights and Peace Campaign

Cambodia’s culture of victim-blaming can be ignored no longer

Cambodian Center for Human Rights executive director Chak Sopheap explains how the Cambodian government’s big promises on women’s rights don’t align with reality – and what must be done

MARCH 11, 2020

Published on the Southeast Asia Globe

Cambodian women from Boeung Kak community march in Phnom Penh on March 8, 2012 – the 101st anniversary of the International Woman day. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP.

On March 8, Cambodia celebrated International Women’s Day, as we have for the last 25 years, with an official public holiday. Marked by celebrations and events across the country, International Women’s Day champions the women in our community, and celebrates their diversity, strengths and achievements – something society at large often neglects to do.

However, in reality Cambodia’s celebration of women’s rights is superficial. Our society’s treatment of women continues to be problematic, and in order to achieve meaningful gender equality in Cambodia, significant societal reform is necessary.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme was “Generation Equality, Realising Women’s Rights”. The social expectations and attitudes that are harming women in our community do not reflect this vision of equality, nor do they result in the upholding of women’s rights, and it is time we confront this issue. We have a persistent problem with gender-based discrimination and violence, a culture of blaming women for the violence against them, and a practice of silencing or harassing those who stand up for the rights of women.

This year International Women’s Day was celebrated widely across Cambodia. One of these celebrations was an event organised collaboratively by multiple civil society organisations, including the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. Despite the event being authorised by City Hall, authorities restricted the tent construction at Freedom Park, only permitting four blocks of 4×6 metre tents instead of the 20×20 metre tent intended.

This arbitrary restriction resulted in some of the 400 participants sitting or standing in direct sun. Such actions by the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) to limit the celebration of International Women’s Day and deter citizens from assembling illustrates the RGC’s shallow and superficial efforts to achieve gender equality. In order to uphold the rights of women the RGC must redouble its efforts and ensure that gender equality is prioritised, starting with refraining from fettering events that aim to celebrate women and inform them of their rights.

The prime minister was quoted saying women who wear ‘sexy outfits’ and revealing clothing ‘provoke sexual desires among men, leading to sexual violence and human trafficking.’ These comments belittle women’s rights to bodily autonomy and self-expression

This year on February 17, at the annual meeting of the Cambodian National Council for Women, Prime Minister Hun Sen criticised women who sell products online by promoting their appearance or by wearing revealing clothing. The prime minister claimed these women damage “morality, traditional Khmer women’s values, and Khmer culture”.

Notably, the prime minister was quoted saying women who wear “sexy outfits” and revealing clothing “provoke sexual desires among men, leading to sexual violence and human trafficking”. These comments from Hun Sen belittle women’s rights to bodily autonomy and self-expression, and place blame on women for the violence committed against them rather than on the perpetrators of the crime.

This highlights the continued failure of the Cambodian government to take gender-based violence and women’s rights seriously and underscores the culture of victim-blaming that has been fostered in our community.

A Cambodian woman, carrying her son shouts slogans during a march on International Women’s Day in Phnom Penh on March 8, 2012. According to the United Nations, women of all continents can on International Women’s Day, celebrated annually on March 8, look back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development. AFP PHOTO/ TANG CHHIN SOTHY (Photo by TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP)

The CCHR and Cambodian civil society have repeatedly called out instances of victim-blaming by officials with little response or commitment by the government for improvement.

For example, in 2012 the CCHR and other civil society organisations called in an open letter for officials to take action and dismiss Phnom Penh’s deputy police chief due to his unacceptable, facetious and offensive reaction to a lawsuit against him relating to his role in the miscarriage of a female protestor who was kicked in the stomach by a member of his police force. The official was quoted as saying, “Is the victim old or young, and does she sue me to return her kid? I want to tell her that if she wants to get back her kid, I am also young”.

In 2013, civil society groups wrote another letter to the government, this time regarding comments made by another district police chief about the gang rape of a 19-year-old disabled woman in Kandal province. The official was quoted as saying, “It was already 9pm when she was raped. She shouldn’t have been out so late”.

Human rights defenders in 2017 and 2018 spoke out about the death of Pen Kunthea, a sex worker who was chased with five others by the Daun Penh District security guards until she fell into a river, where she was left to drown without any rescue efforts or investigation. There has been no justice for her and the conversation has focused instead on her life as a sex worker.

These are only some of the publicised cases – we know that when it comes to gender-based violence, many instances go unreported or silenced. The inappropriate comments highlighted in these examples and the lack of action or justice for women in response to them illustrates the highly problematic culture of shifting blame onto female victims of crimes, and the longstanding trend of these incidences.

Beyond the injustice faced by victims themselves, such cases also give rise to further affronts to women’s rights when human rights defenders are harassed for standing up for these women. Civil society organisations and rights advocates are regularly targeted and silenced for speaking out against gender discrimination and Cambodia’s unwillingness to take women’s rights seriously.

When the CCHR wrote about the prime minister’s comments regarding “sexy outfits” in February, we received significant harassment from the public for standing up for the rights of women. Many people in the community questioned the integrity of these women, accusing them of being immoral and negatively impacting Khmer culture and traditions, and attempted to silence those defending them. In addition, the prime minister directly mocked rights advocates for criticising his comments, saying that he would pay to put nude photographs of their wives on trees. This attitude towards human rights defenders and women’s rights is highly problematic.

People are quick to judge the morality of women. But they do not speak about the injustices that women face, despite their claims to be protecting female dignity. Our society allows the judgement of women, in the name of women, by men.

The focus of the conversation should not be that women need to change and comply with societally-expected behaviour. It should be on ending gender-based discrimination and empowering women to speak out. A culture that allows women to be blamed for violence against them and encourages such language, especially from the upper echelons of political power, reinforces abuse on women and victims and discourages them from speaking out and seeking help.

Rather than reinforcing tired and arbitrary social customs excusing violence against women, the government should be taking a stand. The government must lead by example and eliminate a culture of victim-blaming by shifting blame back to the perpetrators of the crimes

This International Women’s Day, we all need to take a stand and do better for women and those who defend the rights of women. The RGC has committed to improving women’s rights and to implementing the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. We remind them that this includes an article which insists on “taking appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices … which are based on the idea of inferiority” of women.

We also remind the government of their commitment to implement recommendations from the 2019 Universal Periodic Review, including redoubling efforts to eradicate discrimination against women; putting an end to the harmful practices and discriminatory stereotypes that women are subjected to; stepping up measures to promote human rights; and strengthening the role and status of women in Cambodian society.

Rather than reinforcing tired and arbitrary social customs excusing violence against women, the government should be taking a stand. The RGC must lead by example and eliminate a culture of victim-blaming by shifting blame back to the perpetrators of the crimes. The RGC should encourage society to eliminate gender-based discrimination and violence through the creation of policies and specific anti-discrimination legislation. Furthermore, the RGC must protect human rights defenders and acknowledge the legitimate work of those who stand up for women’s rights.

They should view civil society members as partners in the work of elevating women’s rights and reducing discrimination in our society, rather than mock them or restrict them for taking action. By not taking action, the government is reinforcing the culture of victim-blaming in our society and perpetuating violence against women.

It is also important that Cambodia as a society works towards creating lasting social change. Women and human rights defenders have been at the forefront of the battle for gender equality, but we need everyone to stand up against gender-based discrimination. We encourage women and men alike to join together, be willing to condemn the injustices that take place in our society and stand up for the rights of women.

Gender Human Rights and Peace Campaign

Time for Cambodian women to take the lead

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 08 March 2016)

Huge strides have been made for women’s progress in Cambodia over the last couple of decades. Women’s presence is strongly felt within the workforce and more women have begun to climb the career ladder and assume higher-level positions than ever before.

Today we see women dominating in one of Cambodia’s largest industries – the garment sector – and women taking up office jobs, becoming entrepreneurs, obtaining positions within local government and even becoming parliamentarians.

Women’s participation in grassroots-level activism is also strongly felt. Among the throngs of demonstrators that routinely take to the streets in Cambodia to demand their rights in the face of widespread violations, growing numbers of women are joining the ranks.

Women activists and human rights defenders are organising, mobilising, and leading advocacy initiatives throughout the country. From Phnom Penh to the remotest of provinces, women are leading communities to demand their rights. The overwhelming female presence in the struggle for the recognitions of human rights in Cambodia is undeniable.

International Women’s Day (IWD), observed across the globe today, celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. In Cambodia – a country where historically women have been discouraged from participating in social and political actions – there is much to celebrate. Women are increasingly playing an important role in community-level activism, showing just how far Cambodia has moved forward in terms of women’s empowerment.

This year, one initiative that is taking place to celebrate IWD is a campaign to #PledgeforParity, which calls on individuals to pledge to take a concrete step in terms of purposeful action to help achieve gender parity.

While women’s progress in Cambodia is certainly laudable, women continue to be discriminated against and underrepresented in key decision-making roles in public and political life. Parity, unfortunately, remains out of reach.

For example, the International Federation of Journalists has found that although high numbers of women have begun to join the traditionally male-dominated media, they remain significantly underrepresented in key decision-making roles.

Similarly, in Cambodia’s garment sector, while women make up 86 per cent of the workforce, a survey conducted by the Solidarity Center has found the majority of union leaders to be male.

The lack of female leadership within the industry means that pressing gender-related issues affecting the majority of the workforce – for example, maternity rights, poor sanitation and the gender wage gap – are largely overlooked within the labour movement.

Of great concern is the lack of women’s representation in politics. The last National Assembly elections, held in July 2013, saw the first decrease in women’s representation in parliament in 20 years and a failure to meet the Millennium Development Goal of 30 per cent female representation in parliament by 2015.

The situation has only worsened since. Only recently the National Assembly has come under fire for a lack of commitment to ensuring women’s representation among lawmakers, as the number of female parliamentarians decreased to below 20 per cent in 2015.

Indeed, the glaring absence of women in influential roles in Cambodia is largely due to a lack of understanding of – and commitment to – gender mainstreaming. This is problematic considering prevailing traditional attitudes that discriminate against women.

Revealing the less than favourable attitude towards female leaders, Ath Thorn, president of the garment industry’s largest independent union – the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union – has remarked that its members are reluctant to elect women leaders as they are viewed as less capable.

It’s not just within leadership where Cambodia is failing its women. Gender-based violence remains a key concern in Cambodia. A report released by the World Health Organization late last year revealed domestic abuse of women to be a pressing concern in Cambodia, with over a fifth of women suffering physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Equally as alarming, a UN survey in 2013 found that one in five Cambodian men admitted to having raped a woman.

To give credit where credit is due, the royal government of Cambodia has taken decisive and positive steps regarding gender empowerment. The government has a specific national gender equality strategy – the National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women 2014-2018 – which focuses on women’s economic empowerment and preventing gender-based violence.

In addition, a number of civil society organisations continue to work tirelessly to bridge the gender gap by supporting and empowering women.

Such efforts have been the driving force behind women’s progress in the Kingdom. Yet, much work remains to be done. It’s not just about fulfilling quotas. We need to begin focusing on the quality of women’s participation, as well as the quantity.

In light of the upcoming elections, it is vital that concrete measures are taken to ensure women’s participation in decision-making roles in both public and political spheres. It’s time for Cambodian women to take up their places as leaders.

On the long road ahead in the fight for gender equality, I pledge to continue to challenge gender bias, and inspire and empower women in Cambodia to become leaders in their fields. I call upon all Cambodians to join me, and #PledgeforParity, to ensure a more inclusive and equal Cambodia.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

Appreciation Clogher Gender Personal

Turning 30: My Thirtieth Birthday Celebration  

I got a dream when I turned ten: I wanted to be a doctor. It was just imagination but I wanted to be a famous doctor in Cambodia and if possible in the world to cure poor people. As I am a left-handed person, I wished that I could use this left hand to cure people effectively.

Then my dream changed. When I turned twenty I started an internship with a civil society organization. This was the pathway that totally changed my vision. Ten years later, I am obsessed with civil society work and social media platforms, and I have realized that this is who I want to be, not the doctor I had dreamt to become.

However, putting my life-path back to the intersection where I turned my back to a medical doctor career, probably other scenario could have happened. I might have been satisfied with myself or not, but I keep joking about that: probably those who know me now would have been my clients for medical service, or maybe we would have not met in this life-path.

At the end of this month, I will turn 30—an age when you could feel that you are getting old, but I would say the age when “I grow up.” My dream has not really changed. As quoted by Banyan Blog:

As a child, she once dreamed of being a doctor, to serve the poor, but now her dream is to help create a freer, more open and just Cambodia.

I now have a wish to celebrate my 30th birthday: that you all join my cause to empower others to grow up. In 2014, I launched with the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) the pilot “Empowering Cloghers Project”. Through the microgrant support from the Global Voice Online we strengthened the online presence and influence of female university students from rural Cambodia by enabling them to become Cloghers– and to become active online. Cloghers are Cambodian bloggers – locally known as “cloggers” – who are women, thus “cloghers”. My wish is to empower 30 more cloghers and I would like to see my friends to be active citizens and to join my cause by contributing to support this idea. We need to collect roughly US$3000.

I will start collecting my birthday gift from now until 30th March when I will really turn 30. Gift me with three numbered—which could be $3 or $30 or more—for “My Thirtieth Birthday Celebration”!

Your gift will be properly collected, recorded and managed with transparency and accountability. Click here to gift me.

Alternatively, please contact me via for any inquiry about this cause or way of donation.