Since first viewing it on a Phnom Penh newsstand, I have not been able to get a headline from a local paper out of my mind: "Figures Show General Acceptance of Child Rape."
No matter how many times I read it, I can't make any sense of it.
If a society could "generally accept" child rape, then what sort of possible moral values could it have? Behind the headline so much is implied: countless broken young lives, longstanding cycles of violence and trauma. It's simply too hard to fully digest or make sense of.
The irony is that Cambodia is a Buddhist country, with people who are famously regarded by tourists as the most friendly and welcoming in the world, as even the briefest visit will confirm. Yet child rape is endemic, and reportedly on the rise, even as prosecution and punishment remain uncertain.
While Cambodian human rights organizations like LICADHO correctly note that these attacks are often linked to extreme poverty, with perpetrators drawn from the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, it has also been found that government authorities perpetrate more than one-in-four child rapes. As rights group Adhoc had noted, even monks have assaulted underage girls.
Clearly something else is at work. The customary explanations that men are drunk, enraged at their own poverty, trying to avoid HIV/AIDs, or seeking mystical powers from assaulting virgins does not seem to explain the recent rape of a Kratie 2-year-old in November, a Battambang 4-year-old in December, or (by her own father) a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old in Kandal in January.
Although trafficking of children gets much more attention, especially for sexual exploitation in the brothels, child rape has become so common that LICADHO lists it as its "biggest threat to Cambodian children," accounting for 69 percent of its reports cases in 2003, the latest date for rich data that can be found. This is opposed to just 7 percent for child trafficking that same year.
Put bluntly, traditional cultural norms still condone -- and even require -- male domination over women, by violence if necessary. And studies have repeatedly shown that rape -- while commonly conflated with sex and aberrant eroticism -- is really about violence, domination, power and privilege.
In addition, traditions of femininity demand that women must submit to males. This tradition holds their reputations rather than their perpetrators hostage if they make claims of being raped public.
Gender norms like these are hardly confined to Cambodia, but are common across Southeast Asia. For instance, a recent UN survey of 10,000 men in Southeast Asia found that almost a quarter reported having raped someone, at some time, which doesn't count those who did, but declined to admit it.
Current responses to child rape in Southeast Asia have focused on increasing human rights, public awareness, legal reform and strengthening judiciary and police response. All of these are needed. Cambodian authorities are still now figuring out how to track and collect data on child rape, and many crimes are not prosecuted. Sadly, perpetrators know only a fraction of those who commit such crimes will face actual jail time, and therefore act with impunity.
Something else needs to be done.
There is an argument to be made that when a quarter of the population admits to an illegal activity, it is no longer considered a social aberration that can be ended through laws and policing -- no one can seriously propose rounding up and incarcerating one-in-four adult Cambodian males. That said, any activity so widespread, qualifies as a cultural norm, which may call for additional measures.
Perhaps a key part of combating child rape effectively will include challenging, highlighting and ultimately changing masculine norms and attitudes that tolerate and foster the continued violent domination of women, girls, and children -- and by tapping into the hearts and minds of those males who will no longer stand for this atrocity.
Gender and Development for Cambodia has also found that a significant minority of Cambodian men may have more progressive ideas about masculinity and power. These men, along with many other males, are presumably and also privately repulsed by the ongoing, shameful and horrific reality of child rape that is practiced in their country.
They also found that these very men are afraid to speak out for fear of being stigmatized for their progressive values. Speaking publicly about something that is still considered a private matter is considered taboo in Cambodia. Perhaps, even more taboo than rape.
So what do we do?
We must not only empower women and children to question gender norms, but also the men who would support them. This means finding new ways to transform notions of masculinity and give voices to those men who are willing to speak out in order to drag child rape where it belongs: out of the closet of private acts and into the square of public accountability and repugnance.
Engaging the youth of Cambodia might be our best answer. They can help to promote new and non-violent models of masculinity that challenge the traditional domination of men, the subservience of women, and the tradition that sexual violence by the former was ever a private (male) matter.
Changing longstanding cultural norms and practices is not easy. It requires a significant investment of time, as local rights groups working on it know too well.
But it is a crucial strategy in combatting not only child rape, but also sex trafficking and domestic violence. In many ways, they are branches grown from the same tree, with roots sunk deep into a common cultural soil. There are men who can help us tear them out. They are our natural allies. We need to find, engage and empower them.