Sexual harassment is a big problem in Cambodia and around the world. While it can be tricky to define, it includes unwelcome requests for sexual favours, and unwanted sexual advances. Sexual harassment can be physical, verbal (spoken), or both.
Although sexual harassment can happen to anyone, regardless of a person’s sex or gender, women (including trans women) and girls are much more likely to experience this unacceptable behaviour anywhere. This is because of patriarchal (male-dominated) attitudes around sexuality, that lead men to believe they are entitled to act as they please around women and girls. These patriarchal beliefs are present in Cambodia, and help to keep women in marginalized and vulnerable positions – this unfair system is often excused by society, simply explaining it away as part of ‘Khmer tradition’.
For example, think about the Chbab Srey, the traditional code of conduct for women. This set of rules, developed hundreds of years ago, laid out the ways in which a Cambodian woman should behave, with a special focus on her attitude towards her husband, if she is to be recognized as the perfect Cambodian woman. While the code is no longer taught formally in schools, the ideas within it still have a lot of influence in how girls and young women are raised. This results in countless consequences in terms of women’s physical and mental health and wellbeing, as well as their economic rights. Women and girls (especially poor women, rural women and LBTQ women) face many obstacles because of these sexist attitudes, which mean they struggle to enjoy their freedom of choice, movement and sexual reproductive health and rights throughout their lives.
On the other hand, with such unequal and unfair treatment from society, men still enjoy a superior status in society. This leads to various forms of gender-based violence against women, including sexual harassment. When boys grow up being taught that they have power over girls, and that women’s sexual choices (and professional careers) are less important than their own, by the time they become teenagers and adults, many men consider women as objects. Such men feel they can ask or demand sex in exchange for favours such as a job opportunity or a promotion. Others think it is okay to sexually harass women along the street by staring up and down on women’s bodies, using unwelcome and offensive language or whistling. Some even commit assaults in the form of groping or rape.
Unfortunately, Cambodian women face a lot of obstacles to seek help, which means the sexual harassment continues unreported and unpunished in many cases. Even if they do seek help, there is no guarantee that action will be taken, as harassment of women is considered to be ‘normal’. Many women are also scared to speak up for help due to being afraid of social judgment: A study by the organisation CARE revealed that many women in Phnom Penh would be concerned about reporting sexual harassment for fear of being blamed—worrying that people would say the harassment was their fault because of their behaviour.
This culture of silence makes it difficult or impossible for women to speak out, and further makes men feel they can ‘get away with it.’
This culture of silence makes it difficult or impossible for women to speak out, and further makes men feel they can ‘get away with it.’ It also means that the problem of sexuality remains almost invisible, and so is less of a priority for governments and employers to take action.
This is why it is important for young people to understand the problem of sexual harassment and how to end it. Young people can potentially make a big change in our society to eliminate sexual harassment and to help survivors feel safe to speak out. Below are some tips that you can take to tackle sexual harassment:
1. Get to know all forms of sexual harassment
By understanding different forms of sexual harassment, you can better think about your own behaviour and try to avoid acting in any way that might make someone feel uncomfortable or sexually harassed. There are many ways that enable you to better understand and identify the different forms of sexual harassment. You can google some reading materials that provide clear explanations from reliable sources.
Instead of complimenting a colleague on their looks, or commenting on their weight, you can just ask how they are! Of course you can be friendly, but don’t objectify your workmates or make them feel self-conscious.
You can also watch educational videos talking about different forms of sexual harassment in the context of Cambodia. Here is a great example from feminist activist and vlogger Catherine Harry:
And below are a few more examples:
2. Be aware of legal protection
Know your rights! Sexual harassment is illegal under Cambodian criminal law. It is also a human rights violation – there is an important UN document called the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (the CEDAW) that outlaws all types of sexual harassment around the world. You can read the CEDAW here, and you can read more detail from the UN’s CEDAW Committee here. The Cambodian government has recently taken some great steps to help stop sexual harassment, and introduced policies and action plans like the Neary Rattanak IV that you can read here.
3. Be an active youth
Young people (aged 15 to 35 years old) make up a third of the population in Cambodia. This is a large number of young, active people who can come up with new innovations and ideas to tackle many issues, including acts of sexual harassment. There’s a lot of different activities that you can do based on your resources, capacities and how much spare time you have.
Make! For example, you can create educational videos with your smartphone, or form a team with your friends to write and publish cartoons or blogs online via social media.
Speak out! If you see someone being harassed online, offer them support and tell them in the comments that you think sexual harassment is wrong. If it is safe to do so, you can engage with people in Facebook comments and teach them that sexual harassment is not okay - but never put yourself at risk by arguing with someone online. Instead of ignoring harassment at the workplace or on the bus/ in the street, ask the person if they are okay and offer to help them (don’t talk to the harasser).
Chat! You can discuss sexual harassment with your friends and family, and help to change atitudes in your own community to end sexual harassment and understand that it is a crime and a form of gender-based violence.
Volunteer! If you have time, you can reach out to an organisation working to end sexual harassment in Cambodia and ask how you can get involved in their work. If you’d like to get involved with Klahaan, you can reach out any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Instead of ignoring harassment at the workplace or on the bus/ in the street, ask the person if they are okay and offer to help them (don’t talk to the harasser).
4. Believe and Support Survivors
Since Cambodian society puts so much pressure on women, through cultural beliefs and traditions, it is important that if someone shares an experience of sexual harassment or violence with you, that you are patient and supportive with them. A good set of principles is ‘Listen, support and help to report.’ Listen to the survivor, and reassure them that you believe their story and you think that what happened to them is wrong. Provide other forms of support that you can, such as giving them your contact so they can reach you if they need to talk to someone. Lastly, and only if the survivor wants this, you can help them to report the harassment to an employer or authorities such as teachers, professors, their parents or the police.
Together, we can create an environment where survivors of harassment feel supported, and those who commit sexual harassment no longer get away with it!
About the Author: Dalin is Klahaan's Policy & Campaign Intern, and a proud Cambodian feminist.