PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA – Over the past three years, IJM has been developing a complex case against a former military officer suspected of brutally assaulting impoverished girls in his community. Although many stories circulated about the horrific abuse that went on behind the closed doors of his secure home, it took years to locate any families who were willing to formally accuse the powerful Cambodian man of his crimes.
"His power in the community was akin to tyranny," explains IJM Regional Director of Southeast Asia Blair Burns, adding that he was universally perceived as "untouchable."
The Powerful Lie
This is how it goes for many families in developing countries. Poor families assume that the more well-connected, well-resourced criminal will hire a better lawyer, pay bigger bribes. When a law isn't enforced, the more powerful will always win over the poor. And if a law doesn't work, there is little reason to report a crime. The poor stop expecting justice, believing it's impossible to simply rely on their country's laws.
IJM first heard about this complex case through a local aftercare partner who was caring for a survivor of the abuse, a girl who was showing signs of serious trauma. Because of the man's seemingly untouchable power within the community, even the care-provider felt powerless to pursue legal action against him. IJM stepped in to provide aftercare support and facilitate interviews between the survivor and police. As IJM staff visited the community, more and more people began opening up. It was clear that the horrific abuse was being perpetrated on multiple girls, and fear was endemic in speaking out against the abuser.
"We knew we had to help these girls, and of course stop this man from harming others," explains IJM Cambodia Director of Aftercare Lisa Slavovsky. "Because of this man's power, and more specifically, the perception of power, it took us years to bring relief in this case," adds Blair Burns, underscoring again how "untouchable" this man was perceived to be: "We have rarely seen abuse of power to this magnitude in a sexual assault case."
In April 2013, the balance of power finally shifted. Armed with years of evidence and testimonies from survivors and their families, the police arrested the former military officer. He is currently in custody awaiting trial on charges of rape with aggravated circumstances. IJM continues to support the case, determined to show these survivors and their community that their country's laws are stronger than this powerful man.
Providing Relief after the Rescue
During the months when IJM was gathering evidence and working with authorities to build this very delicate case, Lisa and her team started providing critical help to the survivors. IJM's goal for aftercare is to ensure that survivors are able to remain in or eventually return safely to their communities to build a sustainable life there. There are many complex barriers, particularly when the abuse happened in the same community where the survivor lives. Sexual abuse carries such a strong stigma in many rural Cambodian communities that the shame a survivor feels can be paralyzing. Lack of job opportunities leads to economic vulnerability, mental health resources are limited, and medical resources are often inaccessible.
With all of these obstacles, a supportive network is critical. That's why IJM provided care by making the multi-hour journey to visit the survivors in their homes and checking in regularly by phone. During a recent phone call, an IJM social worker learned that one girl's family was having a hard time getting food on the table that week. In fact, the families of both IJM clients were struggling.
Seeking Justice, Finding Compassion
IJM Cambodia's newly hired Church Mobilization Coordinator, Chantra Sok, has been building relationships with churches throughout the country, with the goal of equipping Cambodians to seek justice on behalf of their fellow citizens.
Chantra was aware of a couple Methodist churches in the general area near the girls' village. They were located in very poor communities, and he was not sure if they would be able to provide any support. Chantra contacted the pastors, and both said they wanted to help.
That week, these two impoverished churches each took up an offering from their small congregations. The congregations are made up of daily laborers who subsist on $2 or $3 a day and farmers who travel across the border into Thailand to find work. Even though the church members live on very little, not knowing what tomorrow will bring, they rallied together to support the girls who had suffered such devastation in a community nearby. They raised money and several kilos of rice to send to both IJM clients and their families.
The offering, amounting to about $5 for each family, may not seem like much, but it was an extremely generous collection from people who live off a few dollars a day. And it was more than the clients' families had ever dared ask of anyone.
Chantra says this kind of practical service is exactly what seeking justice can look like for churches in Cambodia: "I hope this story will inspire other churches. It is amazing to see God moving in the Cambodian churches and to see their growing passion for justice as well as their compassion for survivors of sexual violence." Chantra added, "We believe that God has big plans for his people in Cambodia."