In light of Women’s History Month, it cannot be understated that women in Cambodia are disproportionately and uniquely affected by a myriad of issues, many of which, if not all, are the result of deeply rooted gender inequalities and normalized sexism. One in five Cambodian women aged 14-59 will experience some form of physical violence, and domestic violence is still regarded as justifiable. The consequences of these issues manifest in a number of contemporary phenomena, however it is rare that we consider how these inequalities arrived as a result of the gendered impacts of the Cambodian genocide.
As enshrined in the 1948 Convention on Genocide, the acts that constitute genocide include mass killings, mental and bodily harm, and the transferring of children from the affected group. The definition also notes that preventing births is a crucial factor in the complete destruction of a single group- this final point implicates the necessity of a gendered analysis of genocide to truly understand the crime’s causes, effects, and disproportionate burdens on women.
The impacts of genocide on women are not merely long-lasting, but initiate cultural, structural, economic, and psychological issues that only continue to pile with the passage of time and a lack of justice. Cambodia has witnessed such consequences and continues to grapple with the now generational results of sexual and gender-based violence during the Cambodian genocide.
The Cambodian genocide, which ran from 1975-1979, was initiated following the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of the country and the regime’s goal of a classless society with no competition. This would be achieved through mass killings and “re-education” camps to encourage a new societal structure, and, while it is difficult to report the true number of casualties in any mass atrocity, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) estimate up to 3 million deaths as a result of the Cambodian genocide. Many of these deaths would come from disease, torture, starvation, and forced labor, during which thousands of women were subject to rape, sexual violence, and forced marriages.
The Khmer Rouge wanted to increase Cambodia’s population to ensure the growth of a new generation of Khmer Rouge cadres, therefore relying heavily on Cambodian women to do so. This resulted in group weddings across the nation, rape by husbands and Khmer Rouge officers, and forced pregnancies under the threat of execution. In a 2015 study published as part of the Women and Transitional Justice in Cambodia Project, 96.6% of respondents reported being forced to marry someone they did not want to wed, and 80.5% reported being forced to have sex following wedding ceremonies. Women were also subject to sexual mutilation and rape as punishment for resistance, with 44.8% of respondents who witnessed rape reporting more than one perpetrator. While it is clear that predominantly women suffer from sexual violence in the context of genocide, it should be noted that men were subject to these atrocities as well, with 3% of respondents knowing of male victims of rape.
With a situation as horrific and scarring as Cambodia’s, it is clear that the effects of such an event can never be truly healed or realized in full. In a post-conflict setting working towards reconstruction, women were, and still are, highly stigmatized and blamed for their experiences during the genocide. Parts of Cambodia maintain that a woman’s value stems from her “purity,” marginalizing those who testify about their experiences. Women also reported a loss of respect from neighbors and community members who felt their marriages were untraditional. Additionally, the vast majority of women forced to marry fell into poverty that has affected their resulting children and lasted for generations.
In addition to social and economic repercussions, the health effects of the genocide are vast. Women who suffered rape and bodily mutilation would never experience properly functioning health systems for the rest of their lives. Psychologically, these women would go on to suffer from insomnia, nervousness, headaches, and perpetual feelings of guilt and shame that have only been enforced by Cambodia’s remaining gender roles and patriarchy.
It is important to note that the Khmer Rouge’s gender-specific genocidal tactics are not of their own invention, but rooted in already existing structures of oppression that do not treat women as humans with self-determination but rather as objects for sex or purely reproduction. While this is true of all gender-based and sexual violence, genocide in particular is representative of the immense and urgent change needed to address gender disparities and grapple with the already present results of inequalities.
It is very difficult to think about what steps would need to be taken to begin addressing the vastly intersectional and multifaceted issue that is gender inequality. However, starting with legal justice for the women affected and accountability for perpetrators of the crimes will aid in healing and peacebuilding, and work towards the end goal of preventing genocide as opposed to reacting after the crime has already happened. Pursuing justice and accountability also necessitates formal recognition of the atrocities committed, and will contribute to much needed awareness and visibility efforts.
Justice, however, especially for women who have suffered from sexual violence, is infamously difficult to obtain. Many believe that sexual violence was not part of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes- this misinformation and occasional denialism, combined with the widespread stigmatization of women who do share their experiences, has made the process to even begin to seek justice an immense challenge, leading to the many former Khmer Rouge officials who continue to live in the countryside, sometimes near survivors.
While the UN-backed ECCC was established in 2006 and mandated to prosecute Khmer Rouge officers for their atrocities, the Court has been limited to prosecuting a small group of Khmer Rouge leaders, making accountability for individual perpetrators difficult to achieve. Although the ECCC has acknowledged forced marriages and rape as part of the crimes that formed cases eventually charged as genocide, these are lengthy and long overdue trials, and many have criticized the Court for expenditures reaching up to $300 million only to convict very few people.
In tandem with justice, the role of education should be noted as necessary to both genocide prevention and the closing of gender disparities. In Cambodia, knowledge of and dialogue surrounding the sexual violence during the genocide is generally low. While the topic itself is still very taboo, as time continues to pass and survivors slowly pass away, learning about the genocide and its gendered impacts will serve as a lesson for what cannot be repeated and open conversations on gender equality and issues unique to women.
As we witness the forced sterilization of Uyghur women and mass rape of Rohingya women in contemporary times, these crimes will end in even more dire outcomes than seen currently if the world continues to act only after atrocities occur. While a country should not be defined solely by its suffering, just as the legacies of genocide are still present in Cambodia, similar consequences will root in new nations if we remain ignorant to the true and gendered costs of genocide.