It looked exactly like in the Hong Kong gangster movies! I was quite shocked to see real violence happening in the city park at night around 7pm while walking together with a group of young students collecting information for ActionAid Cambodia’s Safe City programme and campaign.
While I was filming students walking to identify the safe and unsafe areas in Phnom Penh city, I witnessed a group of gangsters throwing stones and heavy sticks at each other and shouting loudly. It was quite dark although there were some lights in the main street. I barely saw who these people were. The fighting happened near one of the public parks close to the Royal Palace.
To me, it is a sign of violence but not many people have thought about it until they experience or face it. At least one or two cases of violence against women in the public areas are reported daily in the local media but has not been widely concerned or paid much attention to the issue itself.
Because of the fast development rate and the fact that Phnom Penh is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, violence against women and girls in public spaces in the city happens almost every day and it is the problem that needs a lot of people to pay attention at the present.
According to 2012 report from ministry of planning, In 1998 one in every 20 Cambodians lived in the city of Phnom Penh, yet by 2012 this figure had doubled to about one in 10. The percentage of Cambodia's city-dwellers living in the nation's capital increased from about one-third to one-half over the same time period, with some estimates as high as 71%.
The census conducted by ministry of planning in 2008 reported that Phnom Penh Municipality is one of 6 of the geographic areas and the largest city in Cambodia with a population of 1,501,725 people including 792,926 women, 138,158 children (12,296 girls) and 295,358 families. Census data reveals that 80% of population growth between the last two census periods (1998-2008) is due to net migration.
Although there is much NGO activity to combat violence against women in Cambodia, this focuses mainly on violence in the home rather than public spaces. It is also concentrated almost exclusively in rural areas, despite the huge increase in rural to urban migration and changing demographics. Recent research has indicated that violence against women in urban areas is approximately double compared to rural areas.
The Safe Cities campaign
To get a better understanding of violence against women and girls in the city, I have participated in several safety audit meetings that are part of the safe city programme and campaign of ActionAid. The aim of the meeting is to act against the issue, to raise awareness, and to engage women, especially the most vulnerable to violence in the public areas to provide information of locations and areas that are safe and unsafe for them to live and work in the day or night time.
In one of the in the safety audit meeting that I joined, I was so touched by the stories of entertainment workers, and garment workers who expressed strongly their concerns such as threat of rape along roads and pathways, lack of safe housing provision, increased fear and harassment at night etc.
Phon Srey Ny, 39, a woman works in the entertainment sector, said when she first came to the city, she had no idea what is Phnom Penh at all.
I parked my motor in the same place like other did. It was about 7 or 8pm at night. And there were about three to four young men with no shirts and had tattoos on their bodies. They came to us questioning a few words and they pushed my brother very strong away from the motor. Then, they took the motor and escaped, said Srey Ny.
Women work at night sitting at Wat Phnom national park in the evening in Phnom Penh City.
Without support from her husband, Srey Ny had to force herself to work at night to earn little money to pay for her daily rental room and support her only son. She said the money that she earned is not only to support her and the family but she has to share some with the gangsters for safety and security reason.
Some gangsters often come to me and threaten and force me to give them the money. If I don’t give them, they will kick me and hit on my face. I will not be able to work at night where I normally work. For the safety and security reason, I have to force myself giving them the little money that I earn just enough to pay for my rental room two US Dollars per day and a food of my son, said Srey Ny.
As you can see, rural poverty in Cambodia has pushed more men, women and children to migrate to Phnom Penh in search for better livelihoods, and education. I think the only way to address the violence against women and girls in the public areas and make it visible nationally and globally, it is the right time to work with young women workers, students, and youth to make them confidence in reporting and mapping incidences of violence in public spaces they experience or witness.
Let’s create spaces for those affected by the problem and reduce violence against women and girls in the public spaces.
This International Women’s Day, join in the conversation using #safecities on Twitter and Facebook and tell us: what’s your vision of a Safe City?