Women News Network / April 22, 2013
by Cameron Conaway
(WNN) Phnom Penh, CAMBODIA, SOUTH-EASTERN ASIA: For many, the white cloth is an image that conjures up aristocracy, elaborate formal dinners where the knives must be to the right of the plate and the spoons to the right of the knives. But in Cambodia, as I learned while at a meeting in Phnom Penh with a leader from an organization working to help survivors of sex abuse, there is a phrase that translates to “girls are white cloth” which carries some altogether different symbolism. The phrase is more about fragility, the cloth’s ability to be stained and the unrealistic standards enculturated into young girls from the time they are born.
Unlike “boys are pure gold,” the Khmer phrase used to describe how young boys can be burned, beaten and smashed yet still be gold, girls are far more protected earlier in life. Whereas it’s wrongly assumed that boys can simply tough it out through any trauma they may endure, so too is it wrongly assumed that a cloth out flowing in the world can forever blaze white. Whereas young boys are freer to roam and do as they please, young girls are encouraged to always stay closer to home. This level of protection may sound great, but too often it comes with a price tag like this one: for virgins caught in the sex trade the cost for their virginity is about $500. And this one: a stained cloth is often discarded forever.
Khmer culture at once prizes virginity, links masculinity to the level of sexual activity and stigmatizes sexually active women – whether their sexual activity is by choice or not. Regarding virginity, it’s often said that many young men in Cambodia lost theirs to a prostitute and it’s well known that many still believe in the myth of the virgin cure – that sex with a virgin will cure AIDS or otherwise rejuvenate their energies. As an example of their masculinity, two of the three taxi drivers I had during my recent trip bragged about having multiple wives – one stated he had eleven children and thought it was funny when he couldn’t remember all of their names. In regards to stigmatization, “Half the Sky,” a movement founded by Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn to combat the oppression of women and girls, states: “Once girls are sold into sex slavery, they often know nothing else and are so stigmatized that they remain in the trade, even when that means selling sex voluntarily.”
This concept of voluntary and involuntary adds another layer of complexity to the stigmatization. There’s a prevalent belief throughout the country that sexual exploitation is never committed by Cambodian men, that it’s a “disease” the foreigners bring with them when they visit. Therefore, many girls who say a local man has sexually abused them are not believed (depending on the status of the man) and grown women who claim such crimes are said to have been asking for it.
“It’s a man’s world,” I thought to myself as I listened to story after crushing story at the meeting. And then I recalled Al Jazeera’s article of the same name, how it stated that one in five men across Asia will have raped a woman or girl during his lifetime.
Cambodia holds a special place in my heart. I’ve met some amazing people, am fascinated by their history and have come to love many parts of their culture. But it says something about a country when perhaps its most recognizable hero, Somaly Mam, is herself a sex slave survivor. She often says, “It can take five minutes to save a girl from the brothel, but it can take five years – or ten, or more – to recover them.” While this is absolutely true, it can be argued that much of the “more” statement comes because even in the case of rape, a woman or girl’s family may not welcome her back. A Princeton University report titled “Human Trafficking in Cambodia” states, “…it occasionally happens that a rescued young woman will return to the brothel soon afterwards, unable to imagine a life without the stigma of having been sold for sex work.”
With sexually abused boys, the struggle is often with finding specialized facilities to meet their unique demands, with helping family members understand that such crimes do happen and, contrary to their “boys are pure gold” belief, may carry with them long-term psychological consequences.
For sexually abused girls there are some great facilities and NGO’s throughout Cambodia. But one of the toughest struggles to overcome is the survivor’s feeling of community and family abandonment, especially in light of what the Princeton report goes on to say about the challenges “…of helping women to a self-affirming identity, and of imagining a new life (having been sold by a family member many young women struggle particularly for self-worth).”
Throughout the meeting my mind drifted to a serene Cambodian countryside, an oak table draped with a white cloth billowing in the wind. What a tenuous line to walk – to begin life with perfection as the only standard even as the wind howls. To maintain the standard is expected, but give too much to the wind’s force and your entire being could be seen as nothing more than the shard of a moment it contains.