She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
Linked to our presentation The Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center CWCC.
Linked also to our presentation The Fight against Trafficking in Women and Children.
She says: “The suffering of women encourages us to work, to do more to help. We are human beings. We cannot ignore their situation.”
Oung Chanthol – Cambodia
She works for the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC).
Oung Chanthol (born 1967), was cofounder of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC) in 1997 and is its current executive director. The CWCC has helped over 55,600 female victims of violence, rape and trafficking in its drop-in centers and shelters. It provides legal counseling, victims’ reintegration, community awareness programs, and raises general public awareness through a media campaign. The center receives financial support from the German government and international NGOs. The Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center looks similar to other shop houses in the area. The steep stairs lead to a small office where its founder does dangerous work saving the lives of thousands of Cambodian women. The face of a woman stares out of the posters on the wall. One poster reads: “Domestic violence is condemned by every culture.” The other pronounces: “A life free of violence: it’s our right.”
The woman working in this room has dedicated her life to eradicating violence against women through the center that she co-founded and currently directs. Indeed, when the center was established in 1997, Oung Chanthol didn’t know that she would have such an arduous task ahead.
Born to an upper class Cambodian family, the young Chanthol dreamed of becoming a journalist. But without a journalism school in her country, she turned her interest to business. Later, she developed an interest in law. Even as lawyer, however, she works like a journalist. She visits the rural areas where she encounters all kinds of issues that she informs the media about. “Our work in monitoring, researching, investigating and informing about physical violence and sexual abuse is no different from that of journalists,” she observes.
Chanthol has a certificate as an English interpreter and translator from the Australian Center for English. Her fluency in English helped her get work as a translator and interpreter for the international polling officer of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia during the 1993 UN-sponsored election, and as an assistant and translator for a project on women rights.
Chanthol’s background in human rights earned her a reputation among international organizations. She assisted the United Nations Center for Human Rights in Cambodia, where she monitored the freedom of the press, labor rights and land rights, investigating and preparing reports on abuses by the state. She also helped establish dialogue and relationships among government, human rights organizations, journalist associations, labor unions and employer associations.
With her social and educational background, Chanthol could have lived an easy life mingling with the wealthy and powerful in Cambodian society. However, the suffering of women victims of physical violence, directed the course of her life. “The suffering of women encourages us to work. There are many cases and we felt that something needed to be done to help the injured women. We are human beings, we cannot ignore the situation,” she declares. She cites the example of a woman, seven months pregnant, who was a victim of severe domestic violence. The woman, her unborn baby and her three other children were burned alive. There was also a case of a Japanese man who raped more than 70 girls by marrying them and providing them housing. “We cannot ignore the suffering of these women,” she says.
With a group of women who realized that violence against women and children in Cambodia was severe and that assistance services were lacking, Chanthol co-founded the CWCC in 1997. Within a week, they were overloaded with cases that needed urgent attention. “We intended to provide a shelter for about 20 women per day. In just one week, it was full. From word of mouth, hundreds of women came. The motor taxi also took victims of sexual abuse to our center,” recalls Chanthol.“We couldn’t just turn these women away. We then started to approach donors, and discussed reintegration and education for the girls,” she adds.
With 71 full time staff and over 300 village volunteers, the CWCC provides integrated intervention services to victims of trafficking, rape and domestic violence. These services include monitoring gender-based violence and rescuing victims, provision of shelter to victims, counseling, empowering women through skills training, offering scholarships for education to prevent trafficking, legal assistance, and reintegration of victims into the community.
The number of women who seek help from the center averages 1,800 per year. In the first few years, most were victims of trafficking. However, these days, there are many cases of domestic violence. In Cambodia, people routinely use violence as the way to solve problems, Chanthol explains. “The majority of the victims of domestic violence are over 30 years of age. They are orphans and have no one to turn to when they are attacked by their husbands,” she says.
She admits that she needs more energy to cope with the trauma suffered by victims of trafficking. “Some of the women want to kill themselves. Our counseling encourages them to have hope. We provide skills training such as sewing, weaving, printing, cooking and handiwork,” she says.
The center spends about US$400,000 dollars per year for food at its three shelters. It also returns around 200 girls from each center back to their community at the cost of US$200 per girl. The Ministry of Social Affairs has taken up the work of following-up the girls’ progress on a monthly basis and the German government funds the majority of the center’s activities. It has received additional funds from the DanChurchAid (DCA), Oxfam, Asia Foundation, Terres Des Hommes, the Global Fund for Women, and UNIFEM.
Since 2004, the CWCC regional office in Banteay Meanchey province close to the Thai-Cambodian border has provided funds to support the education of 300 girls and vocational skills training for another 300. These girls are homeless, and are at greater risk of being trafficked, which is widespread in this area.
The center has also been involved in capacity building activities. It trains officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs and staff of NGOs in social intervention and reintegration. An important activity is the training of 400 to 600 police officers on related laws protecting women, and the role of the police in protecting them. Chanthol says that training the police, 25 per cent of whom are illiterate, on the laws on domestic violence, sexual abuse, and trafficking is important since many of them have limited knowledge of legal measures. “The training was inspired by my first encounter with the chief of the investigation unit who said he didn’t know the related laws on trafficking,” says Chanthol. Another training of police in Kandal province addressed the importance of having female police to work with victims of gender-based violence.
The CWCC also trains local leaders on domestic violence. After the training, two villagers are chosen to work as “eyes and ears” of the center in the community. These volunteers, who were given bicycles, help in monitoring, assisting women, and working closely with police.
At the same time, the CWCC conducts legal research, spearheading awareness raising campaigns and lobbying for legal and structural reform through the media, popular education and networking. In its awareness raising campaign, the center produces television spots about the related laws on violence and trafficking. It also features the drama production of students of the University of Fine Arts. To reach the rural areas, which have no access to television, the mobile cinema is used to educate villagers on the issues of physical violence, sexual abuse and trafficking.
Currently, there is no law on domestic violence in Cambodia. The CWCC, which helped drafting the proposed law, hopes to see it passed into law within two years. The center is also working on an amendment to the trafficking law and laws related to rape. The government invited the CWCC to participate in these efforts to amend the domestic laws. “Currently, existing laws only address trafficking for sexual abuse, and do not cover trafficking for other purposes,” says Chanthol.
She went to the University of Hong Kong on a scholarship from the Asia Foundation and obtained her master’s degree in law in 2002.“The study has broadened my understanding of international documents and provisions concerning state obligations under these instruments which is helpful to my work,” she beams.
Chanthol has also been trained in other newly adopted laws in Cambodia, including the marriage and family law, labor law, electoral law, constitutional law, commercial law, contract law, and law on the governance of Cambodia. She coordinated the meeting of NGOs to review the draft labor law and lobbied the National Assembly to integrate provisions on gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Chanthol also facilitated the meetings of NGOs to review different laws concerning women, and led different committees in the campaign to improve women’s rights and status.
Chanthol has vast experience working with other NGOs. She has coordinated a project on women and human rights NGOs, and prepared a report on women’s situation in Cambodia for the UN Special Representative, Justice Michael Kirby, who later submitted the report to the government. She also sits on the boards of several organizations including the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, DanChurchAid, the Coalition Against Child Sexual Exploitation, Health Center for Children, Cambodian Center for Protection of Children’s Rights, Youth and Development Association, and the Nun Association. And she was selected as NGO representative to the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Drafting Laws on Domestic Violence and Donor Consultative Group Meeting.
Chanthol’s work has received international recognition. In 2001, she received the Japan Human Rights award, and the Ramon Magsaysay award for emergent leadership. In 2000, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation gave her a certificate of appreciation. Her numerous publications address the sale of women and girls in Cambodia, trafficking in women and children and related laws, and best practices in setting up and running a shelter for victims of violence.
Chanthol used the prize money she received from the Ramon Magsaysay award to buy land for a new shelter for women victims of domestic violence, rape, and trafficking.
The only people who do not appreciate the work of the CWCC are those who practice violence towards women. “Some brothel owners armed with guns and grenades have come to our center threatening to take back the rescued girls. There were cases where brothel owners shot down our signs and pushed the workers in our center,” she says.Some brothel operators are angry that the CWCC interferes with their sex business. The staff at the center have also received threats from husbands of female victims of domestic violence. One planted a grenade close to the center and stopped the cars of the CWCC’s staff.
Furthermore, foreigners convicted of having sex with minors have established a website where they accused the center of making up stories in order to extort money from them. “These people attack us in the Internet, pay bribes to judges and pay compensation to the girls’ parents to silence them,” she says. In the face of such serious threats, Chanthol finds strength from the women she assists. “When the victims appreciate our work, that gives us strength,” says Chanthol.
It is the fruits of her tireless efforts to end violence against women that motivates her to keep going. In 300 villages where the village volunteers have worked to address the problem of domestic violence, there has been no violence reported in the past three years. This village volunteer project, which started in 1999, is so effective that the government’s Department of Public Welfare copied it.
In her work, Chanthol has the full support of her two daughters, whom she has raised single-handedly since her husband passed away last year at age 62. He was a former general director of the Ministry of Land Management, a former assistant of the Minister of Information, and a former advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Interior.
“My daughters say they are proud of me when they see news reports about my work. The youngest, who is 13 years old, also said she wants to be a lawyer and then prime minister. She is interested in the issue of education and the management of the sewage system in the city,” says Chanthol proudly.
Indeed, more lawyers are needed to provide legal assistance to victims who want to bring their cases to court. When the CWCC first approached the Cambodian Defender Project to ask for legal assistance for the women, the CDP refused, saying its role was to represent the accused, not the victims. However, it later agreed to help the victims as well.