Cambodia PM’s Crackdown On Online Women Vendors – Punishing Women For Their Clothing Choice Is The Root Of Violence, Not The Cure

On Wednesday, 19 February 2020, women’s rights groups condemned the Cambodian government’s crackdown on women who wear provocative clothing while selling goods via live Facebook streams. The crackdown was sanctioned by Prime Minister (PM) Hun Sen’s derogatory threats. He condemned such behaviour as “a violation of our culture and tradition,” insisting that it perpetrates sexual abuse and violence against women. According to him, “you sell your products, not your breasts.” Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International regional director, slammed this as “rhetoric that only serves to perpetuate violence against women and stigmatize survivors of gender-based violence.” This state-sanctioned onslaught to hound and ‘educate’ women “represents a menacing application of the state’s surveillance apparatus to advance a discriminatory and patriarchal agenda.” 

A government official’s patronage of victim-blaming discourse points to a deeper issue in Cambodian society and culture – the sanctioning of gender inequitable notions of the masculine and feminine. As the PM demonized women who are trying to make a living amidst the notorious unemployment rate by charging them with Khmer cultural violations, the interplay between gendered societal expectations and violence against women (VAW) is a discussion Cambodia must have. Claiming crackdown doesn’t violate their rights “because they are causing the destruction of Khmer culture,” PM Hun Sen ordered the government’s Cambodian National Council for Women to “go to their places and order them to stop live streaming until they change to proper clothes.”  Authorities such as the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Post and Telecommunications are “taking action” as per the prime minister’s whim. According to Amnesty International, Ven Rachna (39), a Cambodian woman who wore such clothes in her sales pitch, was ‘coerced’ to sign a confession and film a public apology video. It was then posted on Facebook. Having been provisionally charged with disseminating pornography, she was forced to apologize for “sullying the tradition and honor of Cambodian women.” 

In response, Cambodia’s sexual violence and violence against women (VAW) scene brought the issue of women’s rights to the forefront once again.  Cambodian women’s rights groups offered this refutation to the PM’s claims. “Social values are arbitrary, relative, and constantly changing,” they contended in an open letter that the women vendors had breached no law. “There is no evidence-based research affirming that women’s clothing choice is the root cause of degradation and social morality.” This victim-blaming message only serves to confirm that “there is no respect for women’s rights or even the law,” Ros Sopheap, head of the charity Gender and Development for Cambodia, said. “This is not about pornography. It’s about instilling fear.”  

The cases filed against the women “reflects a double standard in the treatment of Cambodian women by law,” Eng Chandy, advocacy and networking program manager for GADC argues. For example, men selling products online do not suffer the same hounding. Furthermore, she points out that although many popular singers also wear sexy clothing when they perform, no one has charged them with damaging Cambodian culture. She contends that this law written, interpreted, adopted and enforced by men, is leading to sexual discrimination.  Seng Reasey, advocate at the women’s rights organization ‘Silaka,” questioned the PM’s issue with ‘cultural violation,’ pointing out that ‘Khmer culture’ is a blanket term. “Under the Aspara era, for example, there was nakedness, and so did the era after that. So what do you mean?” Questioning why women are always being demonized as cultural destroyers, she calls for a re-examination of this “culture that mainly imposes and restricts the freedom of one another.” Numerous women’s rights activists have buttressed this stance. “Punishing women for their choice of clothing is part of the root cause of violence, rather than its cure.” Urging the government to reject this regressive measure, Bequelin reinforced that “it’s not about how women dress. The problem is the perpetrator, not the victim.”  

Violence Against Women (VAW) is a deep-rooted and widespread phenomenon in Cambodia that brings to light other dire social issues it converges with. Prostitution and high  female unemployment rates, the remnants of the Khmer Rouge legacy, are only a few of the numerous indicators of the issue’s gravity. UN Women 2014’s report has warned of the dire situation of violence against women (VAW) in Cambodia, particularly the infrequence of reports despite its alarming prevalence. The UNFPA’s 2014-2018 National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women brings forth statistics that illustrate the deep-seated tapestry of violence. 33% of partnered men reported perpetrating physical and/or sexual violence against an intimate partner during her lifetime. Gang rape (bauk) is widely-recognized as a recreational sex activity among youth, particularly in urban areas. Unfortunately, GBV is a normalized phenomenon. 50% of women felt that violence by a husband towards his wife can be warranted if she behaves in an argumentative, disrespectful or disobedient manner.  This collective mindset that approves of GBV may be attributed to the Chbap Sreu’s legacy, an oppressive code of conduct for women written by King Ang Duong. Justifying and reinforcing domestic abuse, it promotes the expectation that women must be demure and submissive. It is a persisting cultural discourse that has survived the Khmer Rouge, and is propagated in school and society. Men’s shameless exploitation of cultural hegemony may explain why gender inequality in Cambodia persists so stubbornly.  

Cambodia has solid national and legal frameworks in place to protect women’s rights that have generated numerous progressive outcomes in areas such as prevention, community awareness and provision of legal intervention. However, these policy and program advances have been reported to be lacking a ‘systematic consideration of culture.’ Gender constructs for men and women alike perpetuates incidences of violence and a victim-blaming culture. To tackle these, discourse and preventive measures must consider culture, and go beyond conclusions such as ‘this culture inherently engages in abusive traditional practices,” or ‘this culture normalizes the abuse of women.” As Chouinard urged in Decolonizing International Development Evaluation (2016), cultural responsiveness must not be omitted from international development and evaluation. Addressing the issue of VAW involves delving into “which forms of knowledge are privileged, dominant or included – and whose voices and perspectives frame the analysis or are excluded.” 

For Cambodia in particular, the interlink between gender and social oppression call for a critical analysis of two vital factors: the intrinsic complexity of gender imagery and the weight of behavioural expectations in both genders. While women are expected to be cooperative and secondary to their husbands, men are expected to financially support, manage, and make decisions for their families. Likewise, these expectations of masculinity are reinforced when women shame men who did not achieve these ‘socially-expected indicators of successful masculinity,’ as Partners for Prevention’s working paper, ‘Mapping Masculinities,’ posits. In addition, as long as the culture extols hegemonic masculinity as the most honourable way of being a man, men will strive to emulate it and measure themselves in relation to it. Despite the observation, this abusive mentality may only be enacted by a minority of the male population.  

As Partners4Prevention’s framework analysis proposes, work must be done on individual, household, community, and social levels, in order to transform an environment that condones violence against women. Discourse, community interactions, and safe spaces that acknowledge frustrations with social expectations of masculinity, and promotes respect for women’s fundamental rights, must take place in all these sectors. Social factors such as the influence of community leaders, or overarching gender perceptions that prevails in society may contribute to disseminating toxic environments of gender inequality and normalized violence. However, these units may also function as learning hubs that promote views incorporating healthy blueprints of a relationship, positive and equal power dynamics, and expanded notions of masculinity. 

As we strive to move away from a victim-blaming mentality, we must go beyond simply blaming Cambodia’s culture and tradition for perpetrating VAW. Cambodia must stop justifying intimate partner violence with its ‘culturally-exalted’ and ‘widely-assumed’ hegemonic masculinity. Instead of blaming women and justifying violence or disrespect against them, parents, educators, communities and society must acknowledge that no potency of widespread societal expectations or cultural narrative can right a wrong. At the core of it all, abuse, violence, rape, and victim-blaming are felonies that no reasoning or portrayal can rationalize. Parents must teach their sons to respect and value women instead of objectifying them. They must set good examples and make it so that power does not become an issue of gender. We all have a contribution to make towards making the world a more positive environment for women. While it involves the entirety of society, it must start from what children see and experience at home.