HIGHLIGHTS

  • Returning home in 1992 under the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), she worked as an interpreter and joined a human rights task force. Here she became acquainted with the magnitude of sex trafficking and other gender-related crimes in Cambodia.
  • Following a period of study at Columbia University and an assignment with the Cambodia office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, she founded CWCC in 1997.
  • CWCC set up confidential shelters for women rescued from brothels and abusive husbands. It gave legal assistance to victims of rape, trafficking, and domestic abuse and helped them understand their rights.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her rising courageously to confront and eliminate sex trafficking and gender violence in Cambodia”.

 CITATION

Violence against women knows no one place or social condition, alas. But it flourishes in times of upheaval and great social change, as in Cambodia during its long painful recovery from war and holocaust. Oung Chanthol, executive director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC), wants to make her country a safer place for women.

Born in Kampot, Cambodia in 1967, Oung lost her father to the Khmer Rouge and spent many years of her youth in a Thai refugee camp. There she studied law and public administration and led a job-training program for widows. Returning home in 1992 under the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), she worked as an interpreter and joined a human rights task force. Here she became acquainted with the magnitude of sex trafficking and other gender-related crimes in Cambodia. Following a period of study at Columbia University and an assignment with the Cambodia office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, she decided to act. With the support of friends and of Terre des Hommes (Germany and the Netherlands) she founded CWCC in 1997.

Prostitution has a long history in Cambodia. But it rose dramatically during the UNTAC transition and afterwards. By 1994, in Phnom Penh alone, some 17,000 women and girls were involved, most of them sold or tricked into prostitution and kept in virtual servitude. Thousands more were being trafficked to Thailand to be prostitutes, maids, and beggars. Profits from this cruel trade were shared by traffickers and brothel owners and by the goons, police, and politicians who protected them. For the women, there was no recourse.

It was the same for victims of rape and domestic violence, crimes the Cambodian police barely acknowledged and acted upon capriciously, if at all. Many women endured such an assault fatalistically, fearing they had somehow brought it upon themselves-a view Cambodian society tended to uphold.

Oung moved her new organization into action quickly. CWCC set up confidential shelters for women rescued from brothels and abusive husbands. It gave legal assistance to victims of rape, trafficking, and domestic abuse and helped them understand their rights. It investigated cases of gender violence of all kinds and prodded the police to intervene and make arrests. It provided medical care and counseling, giving comfort to hundreds of women who, before CWCC, had no one to talk to about their fear, shame, and depression. And it trained women in literacy, health, and livelihood skills and helped them find jobs. Thousands of women have now received such assistance from CWCC.

By painstakingly documenting hundreds of cases of rape, trafficking, and domestic abuse, Oung has learned that these crimes are abetted by pervasive ignorance. CWCC therefore mounts awareness campaigns to tell people that sex trafficking is illegal and should be deterred. It educates local authorities and the police. It broadcasts effective radio and TV messages and provides authoritative data to journalists; Oung herself speaks bluntly to the media. With its partners in Cambodia’s growing civil society, it is carrying the dialogue about women’s rights to the highest levels of government.

At CWCC, the future is charted at meetings where Oung and her twenty-five staff members analyze problems and brainstorm about solutions. There are many problems. In Cambodia, old habits die hard and the wheels of justice grind slowly. Moreover, CWCC’s work is inherently dangerous, provoking the wrath of brothel owners, angry husbands, police, and politicians.

Oung and her colleagues are accustomed to this. Soft-spoken but passionate, thirty-four-year-old Oung shrugs off the dangers and, when frustration mounts, gathers her staff to talk things through. And the work goes on.

In electing Oung Chanthol to receive the 2001 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes her rising courageously to confront and eliminate sex trafficking and gender violence in Cambodia.

 RESPONSE

Your Excellency President Gloria M. Arroyo, members of the Magsaysay family, distinguished guests, trustees, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen:

Granting an award to me tonight as the second awardee from Cambodia is a great honor and pleasure for me, my family; my colleagues at CWCC; funding agencies, media, partner NGOs, Cambodian people; and government.

I would like therefore to express my deepest thanks to the trustees and staff for working very hard in selecting me to receive the Award for Emergent Leadership. It confirms that our mission of eliminating violence against women is right and should be pursued. It has been very inspiring for me to see not only CWCC grow, but also get more young people involved, stay involved and work harder for the best interests of women and children who are the most vulnerable groups. I am sure that the recognition will facilitate my work in this very hard struggle.

In 1997, my friends and I, with the support of TDH, decided to establish the Cambodian Women’ s Crisis Center (CWCC) in response to the outcry of hundreds of thousands of women and children who were victims of sex trafficking, rape and domestic violence. Communities were ignoring their cries for help because they could not access services such as safe shelter, therapy, social services, legal remedies and justice. Our mission is to empower women and children victims to help themselves, and to mobilize communities and government officials in responding and eliminating violence against women to achieve safety, equality, peace, development and happiness for all.

After many years of great effort in empowering victims, villagers, police officers, local authorities, and the court; gradually become our allies in assisting victims and preventing issues and start to cope with the problem by themselves. An office and hot line for helping the victims have been set up for them and the same programs are duplicated by other NGOs and a few ministries. The lawyers, who traditionally represented only the accused, agreed to assist the victims. Newspapers, TV, and radio now are actively and successfully working together in disseminating information to the public and policy and lawmakers. The media and newspapers come to us for information, unlike in the beginning when CWCC staff approached them. It is common to see CWCC’s work reported in the media.

Last year, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation presented two Certificates of Appreciation to CWCC for its outstanding work.

Despite all our success, what we have achieved is still very small compared to the seriousness of violence against women in Cambodia, which needs continuous and integrated interventions and gender-based sensitivity to change public attitude and behavior.

Breaking ground in the fight against violence against women is lengthy and dangerous. We have encountered so many obstacles including resistance from unreasonable conservative communities, threats from abusers, and the frustration in the failure of the legal system in providing justice to victims. We are also daily witnesses and listeners to abuse against women and children.

On a personal note, as a young female leader I have to overcome other problems such as seniority and negative reactions to feminism. I face challenges in choosing appropriate and responsive strategies, selecting the right gender-sensitive staff, enabling them to become more professional, and keeping them from burning out. But the suffering of victims is the motivating factor for us to continue this difficult mission.

I have also learned a lot from this work. First, everything can be changed for the better. But it needs time, persistence, accurate information, and proper planning with input from the victims and all the stakeholders. Second, empowering people to deal with problems by themselves needs to be effective and efficient. I am sure that no one wants violence against their daughters, sisters and mothers if they are aware that it is violence and it is unjust. Culturally, we have been taught that violence against women is an acceptable act and a private matter. We therefore need to educate people and empower them to collectively respond to the issue by themselves. Third, a leader in this kind of work must be dedicated. If the leader is uncommitted and afraid, the staff will be the same, but if the leader is committed and brave, the staff will follow suit. Then, everything is possible. Fourth, coordination and networking is necessary for success and the leader must constantly build her own capacity through formal and informal education to gain strength and confidence from people and institutions they work with.

I believe that a society can be peaceful and prosperous only when men, women and children hold hands together with equal dignity and respect. These can be attained only with participation and support from all sectors, not only from women’s groups, including civil society, government, NGOs, men and women.

To conclude, I am very encouraged by your recognition. CWCC would not be as successful as today without the help of our supporters. I hope the support is continued.

THANK YOU!

 BIOGRAPHY

Oung Chanthol was born on April 12, 1967, in the city of Kap in Cambodia’s Kampot Province. Kap is located along the Gulf of Siam, near the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, more than a hundred kilometers southwest of the capital, Phnom Penh. Her father, Oung Dorn, was an army officer who, in the early 1970s, served in the Lon Nol regime. Her mother, Tuon Nan, had worked as a teacher but chose to be a homemaker after the first of her five children was born. She could speak both Khmer and French and was one of only two women in her village to complete the first cycle of secondary school. However, she was not allowed to continue her studies because, like previous generations of Cambodian women, she was not considered worthy of higher education.

Chanthol was the third child in her family and the only girl. Unlike the peasant majority of Cambodians, she belonged to two families of comfortable means. Her father and her paternal grandfather were both army officers; her maternal grandfather was a district chief. Both families owned large tracts of land and hundreds of livestock and employed hundreds of people.

Owing to her country’s troubled history, however, Chanthol could not bask in her family’s wealth. In the last five decades, Cambodia has seen and experienced more than its fair share of domestic turmoil and foreign intervention. Its people, primarily Khmers, have seen their proud land attain independence (from the French), only to be victimized by a genocide on a scale unheard of since the Jewish Holocaust.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)