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Q&A: Journalist Ana Salvá on the Crimes of Forced Marriage and Forced Pregnancy Under the Khmer Rouge

In a recent report published by The Diplomat, Bangkok-based Spanish freelance journalist Ana Salva discussed how the reproductive rights of Cambodian women are forgotten by the court.

[Editor’s Note: The crime of forced marriage and pregnancy is rarely heard of in courts of justice across the world, even though it has huge impact on the mental and physical health of women. But at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, survivors told their stories, even though the crime was not directly addressed by the tribunal. In a recent report published by The Diplomat, Bangkok-based Spanish freelance journalist Ana Salvá discussed how the reproductive rights of Cambodian women are forgotten by the court. She recently spoke to VOA Khmer’s Ten Soksreinith by phone about her work.]

VOA: Why did you decide to write about forced marriage under the Khmer Rouge?

AS: When I arrived to Southeast Asia in 2014, I started to write and learn about Cambodia and Cambodia’s gender violence. I was reading reports by the UN in 2013. It showed that one in five men admitted to committing at least one rape, and five per cent of men admitted to committing gang rape. I studied this astonishingly high figure.

I was talking to some NGOs about why this figure is so huge. They were pointing out that alcohol was one of the main reasons. But in other countries, men drink too. Talking to other experts they pointed out that the Khmer Rouge tendencies could be involved, and that has consequences even today. So I started to be interested in their recent past.

I have been in Cambodia five times since then, mostly working on gender issues. During my last trip to Cambodia, last June, it was about to start the forced marriage tribunal and I interviewed survivors to write on this issue. The reports and activists pointed that forced pregnancies were not going to be tried. Neither in this part of the court nor in the future. The Extraordinary Chambers of the Cambodian Courts are the only legal mechanism that can judge the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, including gender crimes. And many of the leaders now are octogenarians.

VOA: Why do you think the issue of forced marriage and forced pregnancies are important for the public to be aware of?

I don’t know if a general audience has the interest on something that had already happened a long time ago. But I think it’s important to know and understand what and why it happened, and to understand also the present. It’s important for prevention and that this story should be in the media to prevent and to know why something [like this] is happening today and why it happened in the past too.

VOA: What have you learned about the court procedure dealing with victims of forced marriage and forced pregnancies under the Khmer Rouge?

What I’ve learned is that the crimes against women are far behind in the judicial system, not only in Cambodia, but also abroad. I think it’s important to point out that the court is trying forced marriages, a crime that involves men and women. But it will not prosecute forced pregnancies, a crime that only involves women and has been seen as a simple consequence of the forced marriage, as pointed out the activists I interviewed.

VOA: Do you think the lack of data on forced pregnancies resulting from forced marriage under the Khmer Rouge leads to courts having less interest to look at this crime?

I can say that there is a lack of a lot of data and there is no time to include this case to the court. But actually there are reports showing that at least half of the women [under the Khmer Rouge] who were forced to get married were pregnant. There are survivors who bring a lot of stories [like this]. This case is like being forgotten.

VOA: By reading about the cases, have you noticed survivors being hesitant to tell their story in full?

In my experience talking with the survivors of the Khmer Rouge and also survivors of violence that are abused, there is a lot of fear to report abuses. Actually, their statement was very weak … they said a few things going back and forth. There is a fear to report abuse and fear of the consequences. There’s a lot of stigma involved, like the stigma of the community, the stigma of the family, the stigma that many of them are not going to be able to get married. Virginity is very important in Cambodia. If you are not a virgin, you are not pure, and you are not going to be able to get married. I am not an expert and I am only a journalist. In my experience talking to many women, one of the main issues is the stigma and the fear to report.

VOA: Today violence against women still exists. How do you make sense of it?

I actually don’t know why history is repeating. But what we know is that the international criminal laws continue to lack [interest] to address gender crimes that have impacted women worldwide. And for forced pregnancy, a lot of cases are forgotten. No international courts have pursued forced pregnancy to date. That is the problem for the future too, I think.