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A survivor speaking on public radio about Gender Based Violence during the Khmer Rouge

International Women's Day March 8: Empowering Women – Empowering Humanity: Picture It!

The official United Nations theme for International Women's Day 2015 is' Empowering Women - Empowering Humanity: Picture It!' Celebrated globally on 8 March, International Women's Day will highlight the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a historic roadmap signed by 189 governments 20 years ago that sets the agenda for realising women's rights. While there have been many achievements since then, serious gaps remain. This campaign is not just for women and girls, but calls on everyone to stand up for gender equality.

Australian volunteer Dr Rochelle Braaf wrote the below about her experience in Cambodia as a Gender Based Violence Project Officer with the Cambodian Defenders Project.

Visitors to Cambodia are typically charmed by the lush countryside, ancient temples, the wonderful food and gentleness of Khmer people. Distressingly, the cheerfulness of Cambodians belies a deep trauma stemming from the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, coupled with years of conflict.

One of the least known crimes of the genocide is the gender based violence targeted at mainly, but not only, women and girls. This includes forced marriage, rape and other sexual abuses. Since June 2013 I have volunteered at Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP), a legal aid non-government organisation, with its Gender Based Violence Program. Through the program, my assignment is to support survivors of these crimes to exercise their rights to truth, justice, and rehabilitation. I’m also helping my colleagues to raise public awareness in order to enhance social support for survivors.


Testifying about forced marriage at a Women's Hearing

Since 2003, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia has heard cases against Khmer Rouge leaders. To facilitate access to the court for gender based violence survivors, CDP partners with Victims Support Section at the court and Transcultural Psychosocial Organization. Project partners provide survivors with legal advice and representation as civil parties, psychological support and assistance to attend the court. To promote an appropriate response from legal and court staff, we also deliver gender sensitive training to lawyers, students and legal officers. 

The court can be a slow and blunt instrument of justice. Civil processes can provide a more healing alternative for survivors. Between 2011 and 2013, CDP held one international and two national Women’s Hearings, in which survivors testified about their gender based violence experiences before a public audience and expert panel. In the civil hearings panel members ask questions and deliver a final statement with recommendations. The process offers women the opportunity to tell their story in a safe and supportive environment, and their experiences are acknowledged and recorded in print and on film.

A critical part of our work is advocacy for survivors’ rights through national and international processes, like the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In response to these efforts, in 2013 the CEDAW Committee issued recommendations to the Cambodian Government to address the needs of survivors, including through reparations.

Women clients frequently tell us that they want these abuses known about, especially by the young generation, so that they will never take place again. To raise public awareness, CDP hosts a monthly radio show on this issue, broadcast nationally across three stations.


The Cambodian Defenders Project research team, including Rochelle Braaf (second from left), on fieldwork

Research and documentation are critical to giving a voice to survivor experiences. CDP was one of the first organisations to document these crimes through research, films and reports of case studies. Continuing this work, in 2013, I led a study to investigate ‘Sexual Violence against Ethnic Minorities during the Khmer Rouge Regime’. A research assistant and nine interviewers were recruited and trained to collect data from more than 100 survivors across six provinces.

The most rewarding aspect of my work is seeing positive changes take place for our clients, colleagues and in my own practice. I have seen some clients transform from victims of violence to advocates for human rights. With the provision of legal and psychological support, women who have kept silent for 40 years have testified about their experiences to a full auditorium. I have seen my colleagues grow in confidence with development of their organisational, research and advocacy capacity.  For me, working in a cross cultural and bilingual environment has sharpened my communication and training skills.

In planning for my departure from the Kingdom of Wonder, I know it is the warmth of Cambodian people that will be hardest to leave. The smiles that accompany every interaction, shouts of “hello” from strangers as I cycle by, and the laughter and stories told over a shared piece of fruit, a meal and the many celebrations will remain for me, tender and treasured memories.

All of the research, films, radio shows and resources produced by CDP and its partner organisations are documented on the website:



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