Is it cultural?

Something I struggled with during my time in Cambodia was identifying whether to accept a situation as cultural, or challenging it. Although I wanted to ensure I was acting in a respectful way, there were some things I didn’t know whether to let slide. Take, for example, the day I went out into the village surrounding HHA in 2013. I had headed out with two of my workmates so I could take photos of their community outreach. It was while we were at the house of a girl who was about to start studying in preschool, that I came across something disturbing. While her mother was holding her naked baby brother, she kissed his penis. I couldn’t control my facial expressions and stared at the student in what could only be described as a look of disdain, disgust and shock. She, her mother and neighbours looked at me and laughed, which is what Cambodians tend to do in awkward situations. I looked at my two workmates and asked them, “Is that normal?”.

Torn up about whether this was something we should address, I contacted an English doctor friend who was in Cambodia for three years, capacity building staff at a hospital. She too saw my predicament. Were we to accept it as cultural, or was this behaviour that the student had copied from someone else? Was she herself being abused? We decided to leave it, but the memory of that image couldn’t leave me, nor has it left my mind today.

A few months later, I ran ‘Good Touch, Bad Touch’ training for my team. The Good Touch, Bad Touch Project was developed as a way of communicating about sexual abuse to school aged children in Asia in a creative way. Before our team were to roll it out to our students, I needed to run an all-day train the trainer session to fully equip them with the knowledge and get them to understand why this topic was so important. At the start of the day, I brought up the situation I had seen months earlier, with the girl kissing her brother’s penis. Nobody batted an eyelid. I then asked them if they pull on small boy’s penises, which was also something I knew Cambodians did. Some of my workmates looked down, ashamed to speak, as they understood it wasn’t right. A Khmer volunteer at the time (a very cocky one, I might add), put up his hand and told me that he does it for fun.

I walked over to him and asked him, “How would you feel if I pulled down your pants now and yanked on your penis?”

He and the other men in the room flinched and admitted that it wouldn’t feel good.

“So,” I challenged them, “Why do you think it is acceptable to do it to children?”

They didn’t have an answer, although I know from that day forward a few of them changed their behaviour on that. Still, I am left wondering, is it something we should accept as cultural, or is it child abuse? I always wonder if I should have challenged people’s actions more.