PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Last year, leading NGOs, including the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) and the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC,) recorded over 400 cases of child sexual abuse in Cambodia. Similarly, a 2012 study by UNICEF reported that as many as 51.2 percent of girls and 1.9 percent of boys reported being forced into sex.
Low levels of knowledge about sexual abuse leave Cambodia’s children vulnerable to sexual abuse. A new study shows that, despite sexual education initiatives in recent years, a poor understanding of sexual abuse persists among Cambodia’s parents and children.
“We found that parents and children only understand sexual abuse as a man raping a girl by penetrating her vagina, and that this is usually a sudden attack by a stranger, but in reality it’s not just that,” said Phang Chanda, a coordinator at the international aid agency, World Vision.
A report in 2014 titled “Sex, Abuse and Childhood,” revealed that few Cambodian children identify anal sex, oral sex and participation in or exposure to pornography as abusive. The report also noted sexual abuse of boys as an alien concept.
“This makes girls and boys very vulnerable to abuse. But if children can tell what is inappropriate, if they understand what sexual abuse is, this would hugely contribute to the reduction in child sexual abuse,” said Phang.
Phang added that parents also lack an understanding of child sexual abuse, meaning that cases where the victim is not female often go unreported.
Experts claim that Cambodia has taken positive steps by introducing sex education in some government schools. However, education about sexual abuse remains limited to individual instructors taking the initiative. Overall, awareness remains low. In 2012, the Ministry of Education included comprehensive sex education in curricula starting in grade five in the provinces of Preah Sihanouk, Koh Kong, Kompong Cham and Pursat, covering around a quarter of students in Cambodia’s population.
“We teach them everything from sexuality and gender — how their body changes when they grow up — to gender-based violence, avoiding peer-pressure when it comes to sex, birth spacing and drug prevention,” said Yung Kunthearith, the deputy director of the Education Ministry’s School Health Department.
According to the 2014 report, the education the children receive includes topics such as anatomy, reproductive health, contraception and STIs (sexually transmitted infections.) However, identifying and preventing sexual abuse is not directly addressed in the curriculum. Child Helpline Cambodia, a free and anonymous 24-hour hotline, provides counseling and advice to children. In 2013, the hotline reported that they received around 250 calls from children inquiring whether certain relationships were appropriate or sexually abusive.
Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), an anti-pedophilia NGO based in Cambodia, educated around 1,200 children in 2013.
“It can be very difficult and uncomfortable and confusing for young people, and it’s hard to explain sexual abuse, but it depends on the technique too,” said Samleang Seila, the APLE country director. “We found that in our sessions, using pictures of bears and toys to demonstrate body parts works very well… and then we tell them which part of the body cannot be touched.”
– Monica Newell