An ancient Khmer proverb says, “A man is gold; a woman is a white piece of cloth.” Gold can get dirty or be dropped in the mud, but it can be polished and become as shiny as new; if white cloth is dropped in the mud, it will be forever stained, soiled, and ruined. This is a sad reflection of how Cambodian society traditionally views female sexuality. The silencing and shaming of female sexuality means that women often lack their sexual rights and autonomy.
As the world marks World AIDS Day on December 1, Cambodia is often hailed a success as one of the only countries in the world to halt and reverse the spread of HIV from a peak of 2.8 percent in 1998 to an estimated 0.7 percent in 2010. However, harmful gender stereotypes like the one above threaten to undermine efforts and contribute to a second wave of the epidemic.
One woman familiar with today's realities in Cambodia is Duong Sopheaktra, whose inviting smile and infectious giggle hide a world of pain and disillusionment. Sopheaktra grew up in war-torn Cambodia. Her father was away from home fighting, and she was raised by an abusive stepmother who beat her and did not give her enough to eat. The family lived far away from the nearest school, and subsequently Sopheaktra stopped going to school and worked on the family farm.
Sopheaktra tells the heartbreaking story of how her stepsister sold her virginity when she was 17 years old. “There was an old man waiting for me, and my stepsister told me to greet him saying that he was her uncle. I had meal with them and after that I suddenly became sleepy and asked my stepsister to go back home. So she told the man to take us home by car.
“When I woke up my body was naked, and there was a man holding me. I realized that my future was finished at that time. I was very upset, unable to say anything; I just let my tears come out with the pain in my mind.”
Feeling ashamed that she had lost her virginity, Sopheaktra left home and did not tell her father what had happened. Like many women in the same position, Sopheaktra did not have many options.
“I found work as a beer seller. The wage was very low, though, and I could not afford to pay bills and send money home to my father, who was very ill. I decided to do the second job – whenever there was customer who wanted to sleep with me, I would agree if the price was acceptable because I really needed the money to support my living costs.”
Extreme poverty and low education levels are the main forces driving women into commercial and transactional sex work in Cambodia. This takes place in a variety of settings from brothels and streets to karaoke bars and beer gardens. There is an HIV prevalence of 14.7 percent among direct sex workers, and they often report pressure from clients to have sex without condoms. In some cases clients will offer to pay more for unprotected sex. To women living in poverty this can be hard to refuse. According to a 2007 report for Pharmaciens Sans Frontiers, 20 percent of entertainment workers were infected with sexually transmitted infections every month - indicating low condom use.
In a culture that promotes men's rights to sexual pleasure and silences female sexuality, sexual violence is endemic. Sex workers are commonly referred to as srey koach (broken women), and are viewed as “spoiled.” As a consequence of this dehumanisation they frequently endure harassment, rape, and violence from a variety of perpetrators. Rape at the hands of clients is a common experience for most women working in the entertainment industry. Sopheaktra was not spared this ordeal.
“Sometimes customers took me to have sex without paying me and even threatened to kill me. When working in a restaurant, some customers cursed and mocked me and even hit my head with glass. Every time I recalled the pain I suffered, I asked why my life was full of sorrow and I just wanted to take poison to end this life because I could not understand.”
According to Amnesty International, rape in Cambodia goes largely unreported due to a number of reasons. Even though sex work in Cambodia is not illegal, the Cambodian Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation is often used by police to harass and exploit sex workers. A Human Rights Watch Report in 2010 exposed how sex workers are often physically and sexually abused by police and other authorities. Consequently, sex workers who are raped do not trust the police. Furthermore, there is a general lack of confidence that the perpetrator will be convicted, and the shame that rape survivors feel often prevents them from reporting the crime.
It is not only sex workers who suffer such experiences of gender inequality. The majority of married women in Cambodia have no choice other than to face the reality that their husbands will have extramarital sexual relationships with paid and unpaid partners. Men are more likely to use condoms with paid partners, but many do not use condoms consistently with unpaid partners. The result is that married women account for 43 percent of new HIV infections, according to a 2008 survey by Cambodia's National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology, and STD. Domestic rape is against the law in Cambodia, but it is common and is rarely reported to authorities due partially to a widespread lack of understanding from both wives and husbands about sexual rights within marriage.
Out of great sorrow, Sopheaktra has found incredible inner strength and the motivation to help other women facing similar challenges. She has risen from depression and has become a role model for other entertainment workers. Through hard work and determination, Sopheaktra has become a peer educator and facilitates discussions, support, and workshops for fellow entertainment workers. She challenges harmful gender stereotypes and breaks taboos by talking candidly about sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV. By talking about these subjects, she hopes that other sex workers will be better equipped to negotiate safe sex with clients, and will not feel ashamed to seek sexual health treatment or to report abuse.
The work that Sopheaktra does is invaluable to her peers and is much needed in communities where commercial sex is so readily available. But in order to meaningfully tackle the issues, it is not going to be enough to empower women and enlist them in the response. It is imperative that men share this responsibility and challenge prevalent male attitudes, not only to prevent a second wave of the epidemic, but to work toward a more gender equitable society.
Prominent female politician Mu Sochua is working hard to promote equality in Cambodia. She has led the influx of thousands of women into government positions, though change remains slow in the male-dominated society. One of Mu Sochua's early ministerial acts was to launch a gender equality campaign to rewrite the Khmer proverb as “A man is gold; a woman is a precious gem.” This new version of the proverb represents women and men as equally valuable, and challenges the belief that a woman's actions will stain her forever.