By Heang Sokuntheary,
When I was in high school, I never had guy friends. Come to think of it, I never thought of a guy in a good way. I didn’t like guys; I didn’t talk to guys, and I didn’t even make eye contact with them even if they were my classmates. I only talked or made friends with guys who I thought were gay. I’d always thought guys were bad, not safe to be around, and not to be trusted. That was my motto. I only talked to guys in some important situations, in study groups, or when I just couldn’t avoid it. Beside that, I always stayed away from guys.
But did that happen because of no reason at all? Or was I just simply born hating men? No, I remember most of my childhood I spent around boys and men. Everywhere until I entered high school. I was my dad’s and uncle’s favorite. I had best friends who were guys when I was still six or seven years old. Everything seemed perfectly fine until that day.
I was around 12 years old, but I had already enrolled in grade 7. My father has always been the man of education, so he was always encouraging me to study hard, especially the English language. Luckily, there was a volunteer from an NGO who came to the village to teach us kids for free. My father was excited and rushed to register my name on the list, and that was how I learned English back then. Even though I knew some English words at the time, my accent was pretty bad.
At some point in the middle of the school year, one of my neighbor’s relative, who had been living in the States his whole life, came to the village. Because he could speak English pretty well, he offered to teach three of his nephews English and how to speak it with good pronunciation at his house. Soon after, when my father knew about that, he went and asked them whether I could join the class as well. They said, “Okay” and that was the beginning of my nightmare.
He seemed good to me in the first few classes, and surprisingly, I wasn’t bored or annoyed at all to learn there. However, after some weeks, I started to feel insecure.
We sat in a round table when we studied. The male teacher always insisted on me sitting next to him. I didn’t think much of it because I didn’t know what would come next. But after that, he started acting weird with me like holding my hand tight, putting his hand on my lap or my neck, playing with my hair, hugging me and eyeing my body like I was a prey. I was so afraid. I think nobody knew what was happening because we always had this session where he required everyone to close their eyes and listen to English conversations on the cassette. And every time, that was when he took the opportunity to do those things.
There was something about this guy’s eyes and the way he looked at me that made me shudder every time I saw him. He had even asked me to come to his bedroom for a reading session one time, but I refused. I was so afraid of this man, and I was always running away if I saw him outside of the class. I had to come to class every day with fear and disgust in my heart to study, but I dared not tell anybody, even my parents, about what was happening to me. I was so afraid that they wouldn’t believe me because that guy had a good reputation actually.
My father reminded me every single day not to forget the class, and every day I couldn’t disappoint him.
For almost a year, I had to bite my lip and go to that class. But one day, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I decided to tell my mom everything—how I was afraid to go back, how that guy abused me. I told my mom in tears, fearing that she wouldn’t believe me. But she totally understood me. Patting my trembling shoulders, she said it’s okay, that I must not go back to that class again, and that she would deal with dad about everything. To this day, I’m pretty sure that my mom didn’t tell my dad the actual the reason because my dad wouldn’t stand still and do nothing if he had known.
Because of this abuse, I had been emotionally weak and easily seized with panic around men. I had been living in my own world away from men except for my dad and brother. For me, that was a huge hit in my life. So now that I’m getting better, I start thinking about the life of other young girls who might have met the same or similar situation as me. How many girls could there be? What would their life be like? Are they aware of what’s happening to them?
In a 2015 UNICEF report, 5% of survey participants reported, even before the age of 18 years old, being sexually abused by parents, relatives, or people in the community. Five percent for sexual abuse, both on girls and boys, is not some small number, and it has negative consequences on the children’s life in the future. The same research showed that children who got affected by sexual abuse harmed themselves (5% of girls and 8% of boys). Girls also suffered from mental distress (1.5% of cases) and ended up in abusive relationships (11.5%). While the violence against children still exists in Cambodia, the future of the country is in question. The health risk from the abuse is large, and at the same time, it has become a public concern. Therefore, serious steps need to be taken toward solving the issue of sexual abuse, and any other type of abuse, against children.
I’m fortunate that my family and friends always have my back when there are problems. Having such warm support, I’m now confident enough to tell other people my story about the sexual harassment that happened to me when I was small. For the sake of other girls out there who have probably met similar situations, I’m sharing my experience in the hopes that you will feel it’s okay to tell other people about your experience, and that there are always people who support and motivate you to go on.
Telling your story to your family or your best friend could be the best medicine to heal the past and recover slowly. Therefore, no matter what problem befalls you, you can’t just hide it away and try to figure it out by yourself. It never hurts to consult with your loved ones, such as your family member, about the problem. Who knows? Sometimes they could give you the best solution you had never thought of, or even better, help you out along the way. As a human, we cannot cut the ties of friendship and the culture of helping each other out.
In my case, after telling my mom those embarrassing experiences, she didn’t blame me for not telling her sooner. She only encouraged me to tell her everything I encountered that I needed her help with next time. I was crying and regretting that I didn’t tell her sooner, but happy that I finally had the courage to tell her. From that moment on, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t hide anything from my family ever again. I believe that family is for support and encouragement, not for blaming and faulting each other.
I had been holding a grudge toward guys since I was 12 and all the way through my high school years. For six whole years, I hated men. But now, I understand that not all men are the same and that it’s okay to talk to men again. I hated only one man, but I generalized that every man is the same. I’m an adult now, so I know better now what’s right or wrong, and what’s good or bad.
I know it’s hard to forget such experiences. I never once forget all those moments and that man’s face myself. But I need to let go of the past, so that I could lead a happy life. We have met so many problems in life, and along the way, we walk over those step by step. And I think being able to share and express yourself about the experience not only makes you feel better, but you also contribute a lot of knowledge to other people out there who might cherish your story. Therefore, please don’t be afraid and speak up at once.
Views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of UNICEF.