MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A warning to you about this next story: Some will find the content disturbing and it's not appropriate for our youngest listeners. It's also about Cambodia. And it concerns a serious and growing problem, the gang rape of young men and girls. Critics say the government is doing little to stop it.
Rachel Louise Snyder reports from Phnom Penh.
MAO (Through translator): I am from Pursat, far from Phnom Penh. It's a small village with a few hundred families.
RACHEL LOUISE SNYDER: Mao speaks to me through a translator. She's too ashamed to tell me her last name.
MAO: (Through translator) I am 18 years old.
SNYDER: We're sitting in an office at the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city. Tuk-tuks and food vendors meander pass on the street outside.
MAO (Through translator): There was a wedding in Pursat, and I went to participate. At the wedding, this man asked me to dance and I agree. And I went to dance with him.
SNYDER: The man said he had a friend with a question for her. He led her from the wedding to a field nearby.
MAO (Through translator): When he dragged me out, there was his two friends with him and the three were waiting in the fields.
SNYDER: Two of the men managed to rape her before others were alerted by her screams. Now just eight days later, she's telling her story from a safe house.
What happened to Mao has a name in Cambodia: bauk. Its literal translation means plus; but it also means gang rape, a chilling social phenomenon among young men in the city.
A few years ago, a local non-governmental organization put together a video of victims and perpetrators. The voice is distorted to hide her identity.
(Soundbite of a girl speaking foreign language)
SNYDER: This girl says she was raped and sodomized by four men in a guest house. The next morning, she said she called the police but they told her she had no evidence.
David Wilkinson(ph) and his colleagues were studying condom usage among college boys in 2002 when they found that bauk was a socially accepted form of recreation for young middle-class Khmer men.
Mr. DAVID WILKINSON (Consultant): They described it as a situation where one or two young men would procure the services of, generally, a street-based sex worker. Then they would take her to a guest house to have sex. And when they got there, they would have arranged for between four and 10 of their friends to be waiting. And they would coerce or try and induce the woman to have sex with all of them. Very often she was verbally or physically abused and would then be subsequently gang raped.
SNYDER: Generally, bauk happens to sex workers, but it can also happen to what the men in Wilkinson's studies call normal girls, girls like Mao.
Mr. WILKINSON: There is growing indication that the groups of victims extend now beyond those involved in sex work. And we've got stories of school girls, garment factory workers, middle-class young women being gang raped.
SNYDER: Nop Sarin Srey Roth, the secretary general of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center, says prostitutes don't seek help in their shelters because they think bauk is part of their job. But other bauk victims, like Mao, do come.
MAO: Some victim - they are under 15 years old. Every month that we receive the gang rape or rape bauk and the victim - they are from Pursat, Kompang, Chnnam. It everywhere happen here in Cambodia.
SNYDER: Tong Sophrach worked with Wilkinson on the initial research. He says they interviewed moto-taxi drivers in rural areas and found evidence of bauk in at least 21 out of Cambodia's 24 provinces.
Mr. TONG SOPHRACH: Moto-taxi drivers said that because the (unintelligible) worker complain him last night, many guys forced me to have sex, and they bauk me. This young male, who are (unintelligible) he said they're also funny last night. We have sex - and many, many of our peer at the same time.
SNYDER: So they think it's funny?
Mr. SOPHRACH: Yeah, they think that's funny.
SNYDER: It costs about 15 bucks to hire a prostitute for the whole night. Wilkinson says there are many possible reasons why bauk has proliferated. It's a male-bonding experience. Paying for just one prostitute saves money. There aren't many recreational opportunities for young people.
And, says Wilkinson, the bauk phenomenon may be linked to the 1975 to 1979 genocide, when up to a million and a half people died from starvation, disease or execution.
Mr. WILKINSON: It's difficult to say whether this phenomenon is a result of the deprivations imposed by the Khmer Rouge regime, but what you've got is a generation of young people now whose parents didn't really experience adolescence and so have no real models or norms on which to base how to be good parents. It's possible this has got - or has had an effect in how they relate to their sons.
SNYDER: In addition, Wilkinson says, bauk may be triggered by the kind of pornography available in Phnom Penh, which he says is the worst that researchers have seen. The government blames outside influences.
Minister You Ay, from the Ministry of Women's Affairs, says:
Ms. YOU AY (Secretary of State, Ministry of Women's and Veteran's Affairs): Rape itself - that's very often happening in Cambodia due to the influence of the Western culture with the illegal entry or import of pornography film.
SNYDER: But many fault the government of not denouncing bauk more publicly. Tong says that while there have been arrests, he knows of no prosecutions specifically for bauk. Wilkinson, who's lived in Cambodia for a decade, says he believes a high-level government condemnation of bauk could begin to solve the problem.
Mr. WILKINSON: It's really just an aberration of Khmer society. And so as such, it wouldn't be difficult for the political leaders to put a stop to it. With the backing of the senior levels of government, this would happen.
SNYDER: In Wilkinson's follow-up research, he asked young people what most concerned them. The girls' responses were all about avoiding rape.
Mr. WILKINSON: The interview with the boys was more intriguing. They want to know how they could coerce or bribe the girl afterwards not to take action against them.
SNYDER: A famous adage in Cambodia says that men are gold and women are cloth. The former is easily cleaned; the latter easily stained. Mao feels this stain. She is angry and ashamed.
MAO: (Through translator) Everybody, you know, none of us are perfect, and I feel it's also my fault because I wanted to go to the wedding.
SNYDER: For now at least, Mao says she can't go home.
MAO: (Through translator) I do not dare to think of the future.
SNYDER: For women like Mao, who are victims of bauk, it's often said that they have visited the million star hotel - raped and then left under the clear night sky.
For NPR News, this is Rachel Louise Snyder in Cambodia.
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