The Female Refugee Experience in Central Ohio

Cambodian Women

Women in Cambodia experienced horrific violence under the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge imposed strict laws that separated men, women, and children. Their goal was to indoctrinate children into believing they no longer were a part of the family unit and the Angkar—the top level of the Khmer Rouge—was their parent. They did this by banning relationships, forcing marriages (they were only allowed for the sole purpose of reproduction), and taking away children to be raised the government.  

Kim Khem is a woman who shared her story in great detail with the Cambodian Woman's Oral History Project. Here, she speaks about how these policies impacted her life. 

Kim Khem's husband was disappeared--and most likely killed--early during the Khmer Rouge regime. After the family was evacuated to the rural areas of Takeo, Kim Khem was separated from all of her children except the youngest, a 13-month-old son. One day, Kim Khem heard about the death of her mother on a separate work unit. Kim Khem, as the only daughter of her family, requested permission to provide her mother with a proper burial, which in Buddhist practice would entail cremation. Refused and told to simply throw the body away, Kim Khem convinced the cadre to allow her to travel to her children's work unit to at least bury her mother's body. Later that night after the funeral,  she readied herself to travel back to her work unit, but her older children begged her to stay with them for the night. Overcome with mourning, she agreed. She was arrested at 2:00 a.m. by Khmer Rouge cadre. Refusing to abandon her youngest son, she insisted she bring him with her to the prison. Her excerpt details the night of her arrest and the weeks following, including the horrific murder of her son by a prison guard. When asked why she was arrested in the first place, Kim Khem replied, "for mourning the death of my mother."  Today, Kim Khem still carries the scars of her ordeal, and she depends on her children's support for her considerable medical expenses. 

"The cadres dug a square hole, maybe 50 or 100 meters. They used sticks and batons to beat the people on their heads, and the sound was like “phuoss…” When a person was dead, they’d kick the body into the pit and cover it with large tree branches [to prevent it from swelling up and smelling]. They would jeer at the people as they killed them, “You eat boil sago palm! You eat fried chicken!” Most of us were starving; it was very cruel. They killed 11 women by beating them with a stick until only I remained, the only one, the last one alive. They ordered me, “Grandma, you go down into the hole!” I didn't know how I could step down. The hole was deeper than I was tall. Then I fell into the hole face down, my baby under my body. Just then, a tree branch fell on top of me, and I lost consciousness. They thought for sure I was dead and walked away. I thought too that I had died. But I was still alive. 

I climbed out of the grave and went to find my other children to get them out of that unit. But then a security guard found me, tied me in three places, arrested me and brought to the prison. My youngest son was still tied around my neck. The prison was so crowded; there were more than 600 people in that place. On the seventh day of being in the prison, with nothing to eat or drink, some children whose work it was to take care of the cows urinated in coconut shells and then drank their own urine. My baby was thirsty and cried when he saw the children drinking.  One woman nearby noticed this and said, “I feel pity for your child. I will help you to untie your child from your neck. I am not afraid to die anymore.” She united the baby from my neck, and just then the cadre came in. They killed her. They killed her for untying my baby, and they dragged her body outside. My baby was thirsty; he crawled to the children and tried to drink the little urine that remained in coconut shell. He cried, “Wa…Wa…” The Khmer Rouge cadres heard my baby’s voice; they opened the door to the room. My baby saw them, and he crawled to me quickly. He tried to climb up my skirt, he held my legs, but he was too weak, and my arms were tied behind my back. The cadre caught my baby and stepped on his head with Kang Lan.[ii] They stepped on my baby’s head, making the sound “Krij” and my baby’s tongue was out of his mouth. [Cries] My baby died immediately. [Cries] My baby died immediately."

In addition to enduring these traumatizing policies, women suffered sexual violence from the government officers. Those in charge of the women at the labor camps and in the prisons regularly raped them. This is largely under-reported and ignored in the proceedings seeking justice against the Khmer Rouge today. The social stigma around rape is so strong that women are still shamed and blamed for getting raped when they were prisoners of the Khmer Rouge. Watch the following clip to hear from one woman who was attacked and raped by Khmer Rouge soldiers. 

Forced pregnancy is another form of trauma that women under the Khmer Rouge endured. Women were forced to have sex with their assigned husbands with the goal of pregnancy. When pregnant, women lived in terrible conditions, and medical complications occurred in both mothers and their children. Psychological wounds deeply affected these women as well. Being raped, having an unwanted child, being separated from your children, or not having the means to sustain your children gave women mental anguish. 

The Mapping Memories of Cambodia project spoke to many women about their experiences. In the following video, Meng tells them her story of getting married and becoming pregnant. 

Maria Lobato wrote a report on the unique effects of forced pregnancy and the importance of acknowledging them. In "Forced Pregnancy During the Khmer Rouge Regime: Acknowledging forced pregnancy as a distinct crime in the ECCC proceedings", Lobato shares the struggle of one pregnant women in a labor camp:
It was about three or four months into my pregnancy, I was ordered to collect cow dung to use as fertilizers in the rice fields. And they would weigh the cow dung that I collected and if there was not enough, then I would be criticized. And, due to morning sickness, I could not eat well. I became very emaciated and I was criticized very often during the meetings that I was actually pretending to be sick. And I was forced to carry dirt again. And I couldn't eat soup. I only ate rice with some pieces of salt. ... I would be scolded by the unit's chef that I was psychologically sick.

Cambodia Today

The Cambodian government does not make it easy for any of its citizens' lives to improve. This includes women. Under the current government, women struggle with poverty, gender-based violence, education inequities, the separation of families, and the prevalence of rape. Without free elections, it is hard for change to occur.

Gang rape (known as Bauk) is commonplace and normalized. In the Al Jazeera Documentary "It's a Man's World: Rape in Cambodia", they share some disturbing statistics including: In the following video you can hear directly from a victim and a perpetrator about their experiences with bauk

Many Cambodians fled the Khmer Rouge and got resettled in America. Now, these same refugees or their children are getting deported back to Cambodia.  Even if the person came to the United States as a baby, cannot speak Cambodian, has American children, has no family or connections in Cambodia, and already served their jail time, they can still be deported. Some of the offenses people have been deported for include: possession of marijuana and breaking 3 windows in a bar. 

When these people—mainly men—are deported, they leave behind families who relied on them. Many women end up suffering because they are forced to raise a family on their own or are unable to function because of grief and anger. 


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