Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center CWCC

Linked to our presentation of Oung Chanthol – Cambodia.

Linked also to our presentation The Fight against Trafficking in Women and Children.

The Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center – CWCC, Tel/Fax 063 963 276, N° 323 Group 1, Stung Thmey Village, Svay Dangkum Commune, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Oung Chanthol first noticed certain disparities between the sexes as a young girl living in a Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai border. As a teen-ager in the Rithysen camp, she observed hate crimes against women going on around her, as men and women, shell-shocked from surviving the Khmer Rouge, vented their frustrations.

“Even there, there was a lot of rape, a lot of domestic violence,” she says. “So I thought something had to be done.”

She surely wasn’t the first woman to think it. And Cambodia has other intelligent women working towards it. But Oung was one of the first, and her centers are arguably one of the most helpful to women in distress in Cambodia.

Oung, now 35, learned from her experiences in the camp, and during later schooling, that women and girls in her homeland would need sanctuary, as a place to run to when things looked absolutely hopeless.

Now she’s the head of her own Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, providing shelter to more than 150 women daily in three different provinces. She’s the first to admit that it was along road to get here, and there are even longer stretches ahead, as Cambodia opens up to outside influences, and as tourists-not all of them the good kind-are coming to Cambodia in sky-high numbers.

Her centers in Banthey Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces and Phnom Penh have grown from simple shelters into vocational training centers that help women break out of a cycle of poverty that puts them in precarious situations in the first place. They also help get the women back home.

It was a slow expansion, Oung explains, sitting in her humble Phnom Penh office, set in the far south of the city at the end of a dusty, bumpy road. Her face is round and kind. Her feet are bare. There are note front of her. Behind her hang inspirational posters declaring universal rights and truths-rights and truths she still works hard to advocate with her center.

“READ MY LIPS: NO. Sex without consent is a crime.”
“Domestic Violence is condemned by Every Culture.”
“A Life Free of Violence: It’s Our Right.”
These posters declare what many people now understand as matters of fact.

But to Oung Chanthol as a student in school, things weren’t so clear. As a student in the refugee camp, she showed outstanding promise. She sat at the top of her class, an attentive learner, able to quickly grasp concepts and able to work hard. But rather then encourage her development, her teachers saw in her excellence a way to discourage the others. The other boys that is.

Girls shouldn’t “stand on the shoulders” of boys, one teacher said.

The remarks made a lasting impression on her.

“I didn’t want to be Number One,” she says. “Number Two, Ok. But not Number One.”
Outside of school, too, her ears were perked. She had a hard time figuring out why it was up to woman to make sure her husband didn’t have a headache, that the home was in order for him, that his clothes were cleaned for him.

“I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t the man do this for the woman,’” she recalls.

She graduated from secondary school and went on to law school, one of just six girls in a class of 300.

She went on to work for a small organization that helped women had been widowed by the war. She graduated to a job on a UN human rights task force, then attended classes on human rights at Columbia University, a prestigious school in New York City.

It was during her work with the UN that a clear picture emerged hat women were not getting the services they needed in a society still healing from the war. Chopped up by their husbands, or beheaded by them. Women beaten, women raped, daughters sold or forced into prostitution.

“We found out that many, many women are affected by that,” she said.

But there was one case in particular she remembers the most clearly. It was a women whose husband had a notorious history for beating her.

“This woman was beaten almost daily,” Oung says. “Finally she ran way, and asked her neighbor to help her, to take her in. but the neighbor dare not. The neighbor was afraid of the husband also.”
With no place to go, the woman had to go back home, back to the beatings.

He tied her up with her two children and burned them alive,” she says.
At the UN, she saw too many women with too may similar stories.

“We were very frustrated,” she says. “I felt many people could do my job [at the UN].”

She left and used her experiences in healing with donor and her contacts from the UN to set up the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center. And right away there was hope, peppered with despair and the acute knowledge of how far the country had to go where women’s rights were concerned.

A girl who had been trafficked to Phnom Penh was beaten severely at a brothel. Police in the area didn’t see all her bruises at first, but noticed she was vomiting blood. They freed her, but one of the police officials in charge had no place to keep her in his office. She wasn’t accused of any crime, so she couldn’t stay in a cell. The office remembered seeing a brochure for the crisis Center. It had not even been up and running for a week. He brought the girls to the center. The good news for the girls was that she was safe. The bad news for the center was that the police official was worried he had done something illegal.

“The police asked, ‘Is it a crime to take her from the brothel? I’m afraid the owner will complain against me.’”

From that beginning of mixed emotion, she slowly built up the center. She found founds to return women to their villages after they had been rescued from brothel or brutal husbands. She counseled them. She hired monitors, investigators, them lawyers. Then she expanded to the other two provinces. Poverty can trap women. So she started to teach hem to weave silk, to sew for possible employment in factories, to cook professional, to clean house. “So our services came out from the needs of the women,” she says.

But now money for all that is heard to come by. “Donors don’t want to help vocational training,” she say. “Advocacy is their priority.”

Her center does that now too.
The needs for Cambodian women are still immense, and they are facing new challenges too, Oung Chanthol says.

International trafficking, especially to Thailand, is on the rise. More and more well-meaning tourists are coming to Cambodia, followed, though, by sex tourists and pedophiles.

“The temples should be enough,” she says, then explains that a new report found that 87 percent of the children selling souvenirs or begging near the temples have been approached for sexual favors. Some are lured to hotels, promised that their souvenirs will be bought there, only to be raped.

These things bother her. Her center is doing well, but perhaps not enough, even with more than 200 volunteers in villages across the country, training police, teaching women their rights, warning them for the tricks played by traffickers.

She will leave in September to finish a Master’s Degree in International Human right Law.

Before she goes, she would like “to leave a message for tourists: If they have sex with children they can be sentenced to up to 20 years imprison,” she says. “And the conditions in Cambodian prison are not so good.” (Read more of ‘cool in a crisis’, by Brain Calvert, The Mohkot magazine).

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