In Cambodia, the statistics depicting violence against women are staggering. Activists are working to gradually change this, through creative approaches from smartphone apps to street lighting. Writing by Joanna Mayhew. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

A sea of purple t-shirts adds some much-needed colour to the washed-out, desolate tiles that mark Freedom Park, an area in the capital city that has been defined both by progress and the lack thereof: at times the stage for progressive rallies, and at others wrapped in barbed wire to silence protests.

It is perhaps fitting then that it is the site for an International Women’s Day event raising awareness on violence against women—an issue of stubborn persistence, dotted with signs of change.

At the event, lines form for face painting and nail art, all done in purple – the colour, symbolising justice and dignity, of the globally recognised day. Hand-scrawled messages such as, “Don’t hit, scream at and look down on women,” and “Respect the women, respect the world,” cover canvases. Around 1,000 attendees bear the sweltering March heat to send a united message: that women should be able to move through the city freely, without a threat of violence.

Striking Realities
From the capital to the far reaches of the country, Cambodia has long been plagued with harrowing statistics on violence perpetuated against females. One in four women have experienced physical or sexual partner violence, according to WHO. A 2013 UN study also revealed one in three men in relationships reported committing violence against women – one of the highest rates in the region. Gang rape is widely recognised as a recreational sex activity among youth, and 5.2 percent of men report having perpetrated this, according to the UN.

But the most extensive injustices – and the hardest to address – are the underlying attitudes towards this violence, often rooted in traditional beliefs that value men more highly than women. “The pervading attitude that violence against women is inevitable, it’s always existed so it will always exist, is a huge problem to overcome,” says Kate Seewald, Safe Cities for Women campaign advisor at NGO ActionAid.

Phnom Penh’s rapid growth is also resulting in complex issues. Large numbers of rural, mostly poor, women migrate to the city for work, and end up in industries such as garment production, beer promotion, karaoke bars and sex work. Public safety services, such as crime reporting systems and medical and psychosocial care, have not been able to keep pace with the influx.

“I have experienced sexual harassment, physical abuse and threatening behaviour almost every night,” says Lin*, who has worked for a decade as a beer promoter, alongside an estimated 4,000 women, according to a CARE case study. “When I refuse [sex], customers threaten to have me fired,” she adds, saying she grew accustomed to the violence, and kept silent about it for fear of discrimination.

Women in similar work to Lin are at increased risk of sexual assault, and four out of five women surveyed by ActionAid say they feel unsafe going outside after dark. “The fear of violence is equally damaging because it restricts women’s mobility,” says Seewald. “It keeps them inside, and it stops them seeking opportunities.”

Illuminating Violence
But women are steadily taking back the streets, with the help of a movement designed to amplify their voices and address safety concerns. The Safe Cities Campaign, initiated by ActionAid in partnership with local organisations, works with coalitions of sex workers, garment factory staff, beer promoters and university students in Phnom Penh. It tackles underlying attitudes by getting both men and women to talk about the issues, through events and meetings with local officials.

Safe Cities encourages women to speak out in whatever their sphere of influence is. For some, this act of bravery may just be with their husbands, while for others it could be at their school or workplace. “It’s using what space you’ve got to question back and challenge those norms,” says ActionAid country director, Caroline McCausland.

The campaign is also taking on the obvious but often overlooked problem of poor street lighting throughout the city. “It’s the one issue that affects every single woman. More crimes are happening on unlit streets, that’s without a doubt,” says McCausland. “And it adds to the fear.”

Normally jobs available to the poorest segments of Cambodian society are in service industries. As opposed to those in rural areas where livelihoods surround the household, women in the capital often have to travel at night, increasing their risk of violence, as well as the stigma they face for working after hours.

Garment workers, who often reside in public housing close to factories, face threats when using unlit communal bathrooms, says ActionAid. A simple and low-cost solution is light bulbs, to exposes dangers and increase protection for the city’s females.

This campaign will be boosted by a series of smartphone apps being released this month aiming to improve safety and raise awareness. The VXW program partners with activists to bring about change via mobile technology, and is developing three distinct apps catering to each activist’s work. “We hope street harassment will be reduced through our campaign,” says Lok Malin, program officer for The Asia Foundation, which leads the initiative.

Bunn Rachana is one of three female Khmer awardees, chosen for her work with communities facing threats to their land. She grew passionate about defending women after witnessing violence and arrests while campaigning alongside Boeung Kak Lake residents. “It’s a great honour, for myself, the people I’m working with,” the 32-year-old says of the award. “But this is not about me. It’s about the cause.”

Growing up in Phnom Penh, Rachana was shaped by witnessing the unequal power dynamics in her parents’ marriage, as well as domestic violence, including through guns, in neighbouring families. “I’m not sure if I was frustrated at the time, but I sure knew this is not right.” As an adult, she faces frequent street harassment for her voluptuous body type, she says. “That’s a common thing, but actually it’s a big deal.”

Malin, too, has faced her fair share of discrimination, and grew up observing her father verbally abusing her mother. “Before, I felt that a woman has no value. I used to feel that, in the next life, I want to be a man,” she says.

Rachana’s app, called Safe Agent 008, will be used first by Safe Cities’ networks of sex workers, garment workers, students and beer promoters.

It features an alarm to alert passers-by when women feel threatened, an anonymous reporting system when they witness or experience violence to create mapping, and a message system that automatically sends GPS coordinates to friends or family if they feel in danger.

“Everyone would want to know where their loved ones are when they’re in danger – I would,” says Rachana. “I hope it will contribute to making our city a little safer, not just for women but also for men.”

The remaining apps tackle domestic violence and workers’ rights, catering to non-literate populations through animated videos and voiceovers. “Investing in technology around gender violence prevention is the smart thing to do,” said Minister of Women’s Affairs Dr Ing Kantha Phava, at the VXW launch event.

Indeed, Cambodia’s growing technology use holds much potential, with the minister quoting 3.8 million internet users and 1.5 million Facebook users, with 1,100 joining everyday. About 26 percent of Cambodians have smartphones, representing a 30 percent growth rate, according to a 2014 study by The Asia Foundation. “Technology can reach people faster,” says Malin. “In terms of information distribution, it’s very handy,” adds Rachana.

Standing Together
Activist and VXW awardee Phat Sreytouch works to support beer promoters’ rights and safety, as a committee member for the Solidarity Association of Beer Promoters. The group, originally established by CARE and now independent, uses peer educators to inform workers about their rights.

“Our research has certainly found a view that if you’re working in that profession, sexual harassment is part of the job description,” says Jenny Conrad, program communications advisor for CARE, which discovered 67 percent of beer promoters had experienced unwanted sexual touching. “People aren’t aware they have the right to say, ‘no, this is not okay’.”

Lin can relate. One night at a restaurant north of Phnom Penh, a customer tried to force her to guzzle beer and, when she couldn’t finish it, threw it in her face, slapped her, and screamed at her, calling her a sex worker. She has also been forced at gunpoint to go out after work. “Whenever these situations occur, no one is going to help,” she says. “The owner will try to calm the customers, while we, the beer promotion girls, will be blamed.”

The association acts as a support group to the 500 members, providing strength in numbers when workers report incidents to managers, and accompanying them to the police. “We must be able to stand up against [men],” adds Sreytouch, who is a former beer promoter herself. “We must have a strong will.”

CARE also tackles the issue by displaying creative messages above urinals and on tissue boxes that adorn each table in karaoke bars and beer gardens, sending a clear warning that violence is not acceptable. “If a group of men sit down to have a beer, it makes them think twice,” says Conrad.

To complement this, 400 police were trained on gender-based violence, through the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and CARE, which reports seeing positive changes as a result. However, other players say beer promoters and sex workers they support do not trust police, and feel reporting crimes will change little, due to what is perceived as widespread impunity for offenders.

According to ActionAid, the media reported 665 rape cases in 2012, and only seven of these shockingly resulted in prosecution.

Council of Ministers’ spokesman, Phay Siphan, counters that, “Who individually offended the women no matter who they are and at any social status, are absolutely subject to the court of law.” And leading female opposition MP Mu Sochua says the government must take a strong stand. “Violence against women drains not just the victims but the invaluable human capital of an entire nation,” she says. “It is our business to prevent it at all cost and to pursue justice for the victims.”

Stepping Out
In the meantime, women are making changes themselves, by speaking out about the violence they experience behind closed doors and in plain sight. “I see movement of people rising, now more comfortable taking the matter into their own hands,” says Rachana. “It’s difficult, but it’s moving, and there is hope.”

Much of this hope lies with the young generation, who show signs of turning the tide on gender perceptions and greatly outnumber their older counterparts, with 65 percent of the population aged under 30.

At the Freedom Park event, young people showed up in the hundreds to break the silence around the issue. “Women are a precious resource,” says 31-year-old Narith Souk, who proudly represents the event’s male contingency. “Women play a very important role developing society.” Narith believes he is not alone amongst his peers in respecting women’s rights, and attributes this to education.

Eaream Kim, a 20-year-old university student, was volunteering at the first aid tent. “We want to improve our rights,” she says. “Many males in the provinces think they have power in the family… I think this generation will change this.”

Nearby, the event’s highpoint was underway – an updated version of the Madison, a line dance frequently used at Cambodian celebrations. On stage, young men and women with baseball caps, sunglasses and backpacks direct the massive crowd through the new, intricate routine. The neat rows of attendees attempt to mimic, stepping left and right, clapping, shimmying and sliding, often running into each other, as the leaders shout the count in Khmer.

Patiently, the attendees work to grasp the moves to the dance, at once well known and foreign. Slowly, but surely, the crowd starts to move in step.

*Name has been changed.