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Using technology to counter gender-based violence in Cambodia

As the risks of abuse and violence against women morph with societal changes in Cambodia, technology and social media are helping those in need to stay one step ahead. Joanna Mayhew reports from Phnom Penh.

In a bare concrete room, down a pungent hallway on the outskirts of Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, Sreyleap* sits on the tiled floor, sipping iced coffee from a red thermos. Though it's mid-day, the puffy-eyed 25-year-old has just awoken, weary from another night of work that requires her to drink copious amounts of alcohol and endure groping from unfamiliar men, in exchange for meagre tips.

As a karaoke bar employee, Sreyleap witnesses or experiences sexual assaults on a near-nightly basis. Rejecting unwanted advances is almost impossible when customers are drunk, she says; they react angrily, smashing glasses or yelling.

But workplace abuse also takes more nuanced forms. Two months ago, Sreyleap was three months pregnant and eager for a second child. When her boss heard rumours of her pregnancy, he forced her to get tested by a doctor, and then gave her an ultimatum: abort the baby, or lose your job. "I was so sad," Sreyleap says.

But having recently divorced her abusive husband, and earning just $60 per month to pay rent and support her five-year-old daughter, Sreyleap had little choice. She went about it the cheapest way possible—taking crude pills. "It was a risk," she says. "I didn't know if I would live or die."

An endemic problem

Other cases of abuse are more visible to the public. In July, property tycoon Sok Bun attacked a former television presenter, Ek Socheata. Bun remained free until security footage - showing him beating the actress by kicking her face, dragging her by the hair, and punching her, while his bodyguard aimed a pistol at her head - went viral on social media.

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Violence against women has long been an issue in Cambodia

Violence against women has long been endemic in Cambodia, borne out in widespread oppressive attitudes and harrowing statistics. The United Nations says one in four Cambodian women reported physical or sexual violence by a partner, while one in five men admitted to having committed rape, and more than 5 percent of men said they had engaged in gang rape.

The migration factor

But in recent years, violence has shifted along with rapid changes to Cambodia's capital city, moving more prominently from the private domain to the public. Sreyleap represents a growing number of rural, mostly poor, women who have migrated to Phnom Penh for work. Most end up in the garment industry or entertainment sector as beer promoters, karaoke employees, or sex workers. Such places leave women at increased risk of violence, both at work and when traveling at night.

"Those most vulnerable to violence are those who have migrated," says Caroline McCausland, country director of non-profit ActionAid, noting that Phnom Penh's population has doubled since 1998. "They tend to have very low-paid jobs and are living in areas where there's no sense of community." Public services have not kept pace with the influx, she adds.

"Looking at the city and how it's changing, it's important for people to understand violence against women as something that's not just happening between married couples," says Inala Fathimath, a programme specialist at UN Women. "It's one of the most prominent human rights violations still very prevalent in Cambodia."

Technology can help

Organizations are aiming to counter this kind of violence by capitalizing on the country's rising use of technology and social media, partnering with entertainment workers, and engaging youth via large-scale campaigns.

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Many migrant women in Phnom Penh end up as beer promoters, karaoke employees, or sex workers

Last month, US non-profit The Asia Foundation (TAF) released three smartphone apps to improve safety and raise awareness under its VXW program. One, named Safe Agent 008, has an alarm, an anonymous reporting mechanism, and a message system that automatically sends GPS coordinates to friends if women feel at risk.

Groups of sex workers, garment laborers, and beer promoters are piloting its functions. Other apps use videos and audio to cater to non-literate users to educate them about labor laws, so that women like Sreyleap understand their rights.

"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, noting that 3.8 million Cambodians use the Internet, while 1.5 million - 10 percent of the population - are on Facebook.

"Technology can reach people faster," says TAF program officer Lok Malin, adding that 26 percent of Cambodians now have smartphones. "We hope street harassment will be reduced through our campaign."

The impact of social media

Another campaign, Safe Cities for Women, also partners with entertainment workers to improve safety by increasing street lighting and developing sanitation and shelter services.

Started by ActionAid, the campaign uses social media, which has fewer restraints for sharing sensitive information, to create dialogue with its followers on misogynistic attitudes.

The impact of social media can be seen in the pivotal role it played in the aftermath of the attack on Socheata. When the video surfaced, public outrage prompted calls for justice. Bun fled the country but was arrested after returning, and is now awaiting trial.

"The case is an important example of the power of social media as a tool for the Cambodian public in demanding action on injustice," says Kate Seewald, Safe Cities campaign advisor. "What we now need to see is the same level of outrage leveled at violence against everyday women…to keep the momentum going."

'The cost of not acting is significant'

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Organizations aim to counter gender violence by capitalizing on the rising use of technology and social media

UN Women aims to maintain this momentum by working with youth, as those aged under 30 comprise two-thirds of the population. "They will influence the social and economic dimensions of the country," says Fathimath. "It's important to keep this issue on their agenda."

UN Women trains peer educators and engages nearly 11,000 youth via social media to encourage activism against gender-based violence. The first act of violence typically occurs between the ages of 15 and 19, making early intervention essential, says Fathimath.

The cost of not acting is significant, says Mu Sochua, a former Minister of Women's Affairs and now a prominent opposition legislator. "Violence against women drains not just the victims but also the invaluable human capital of an entire nation," she says. "It is our business to prevent it at all costs and to pursue justice for the victims."

Bun's trial - assuming it goes ahead - will likely be the next test in a country where impunity for offenders often goes unchecked. ActionAid says the media reported 665 rape cases in 2012, but just seven resulted in prosecution.

Sreyleap didn't report what happened to her. Instead, she moved to a new karaoke bar, where she earns $190 a month. Despite the new surroundings, old risks remain: Sreyleap has already seen co-workers given similar ultimatums.

*Sreyleap's real name has been changed to protect her identity.

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