One of the positive outcomes of a recent seminar on sexual and gender-based violence during the Khmer Rouge period was the forging of an inter-generational “culture of dialogue” between Cambodians who came of age before, during, and after the regime. Students from various universities held a fruitful discussion with regime survivors at the event, according to Yim Sotheary, program coordinator at Kdei Karuna, an organization dedicated to peace-building and reconciliation.
Held at the Diakonia Center, the seminar aimed to bring men and women together to discuss ways to promote gender equality and end sexual and gender-based violence. What set this forum apart from other discussions of gender equality was that it drew on the experiences of Khmer Rouge survivors. Around 100 students took part, Mrs Sotheary said.
“I think seminars are a good way to facilitate dialogue. Without dialogue, we can’t learn from our history. If we don’t learn from our mistakes, whether they are our own or those of our leaders, we will continue to make them,” Mrs Sotheary said.
Along with studying the historical facts in textbooks, Mrs Sotheary wants students to hear first-hand accounts from Khmer Rouge survivors. She feels that having youth, NGO workers and government officials engage in discussions with survivors may be able to promote change in the realm of gender equality, which she said had not advanced much in the past 10 years.
Mrs Sotheary said that engaging in dialogue means exchanging views on the core issues of a problem, as opposed to trading accusations and blaming others.
Kao Sothirak, 23, a psychology student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said he would share what he learned at the seminar with others. It had opened his eyes to the importance of studying history, he said. “I will share what I have learned about the harm caused by sexual and gender-based violence. That violence mostly happens within families, and most women do not realize they have the right to refuse when their husband asks them to do something they are unwilling to do.”
Bunleng Sytha, 21, a student at the National Institute of Social Affairs, said the seminar had given her a clearer idea about issues relating to sexual and gender-based violence. “It’s important that women have the tools to protect themselves, and also that they understand they have equal rights as men,” she said.
Ms Sytha added she had learned a lot about survival from people who had lived through the Khmer Rouge period and its aftermath. She was particularly inspired by the fact that while they have experienced many bad things, they do not go through life with a victim’s mindset.