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
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.