‘They are heroes’: Jolie honours survivors of Cambodia sexual violence


Angelina Jolie has paid tribute to the survivors of forced marriage under the Khmer Rouge and pledged to continue advocating on behalf of women and girls who suffer from sexualized violence in conflict.

Jolie has spent the past few days in Cambodia, where her new made-for-Netflix film, ‘First They killed My Father,’ premiered on Saturday night in Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat temple complex.

Speaking at an event held by the British Embassy in Phnom Penh on Tuesday night, Jolie – who co-founded the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative with former British foreign secretary William Hague in 2012 – welcomed efforts to prosecute the practice of forced marriage during the ultra-Maoist regime between 1975 and 1979.

“[I]’m of course very conscious of the part that played in the suffering of the Cambodian women in the genocide,” she said.

“I welcome the fact that the [Khmer Rouge] tribunal has begun to address this issue and I pay tribute to all the survivors in Cambodia, including those who have so bravely given evidence. I believe they are heroes to us all.”

An unknown number of women and men were forced into marriages by the Khmer Rouge as part of its plan to destroy traditional family structures and build up a new population of faithful cadre. Most were forced, at gunpoint and under threat of death, to consummate these forced unions. It was only in the past few years that testimonies from both women and men who survived this practice began to tell their stories, many of them in truth-telling forums set up by NGOs committed to bringing this kind of sexualized violence to light.

The crime of forced marriage has now been prosecuted at the tribunal as part of what is known as Case 002/02, but efforts are also being made to include rape outside of forced marriage in future cases that have yet to be adjudicated.

Tuesday’s event aimed to bring Jolie into close contact with the community working to highlight these issues in Cambodia, and she assured them in her remarks that she was “here to listen.”

“Please, please let me know how I can in any way further all the great work you’ve been doing and add to your voices,” she said.

Thida Kus, executive director of the Silaka NGO that promotes gender equity, said she was happy to be able to discuss how survivor testimonies can be used to shatter modern issues of gender-based violence.

“People still discriminate against women and look at them as just a sex object,” Kus said. “They don’t even realise women are human beings.”

Excerpts from an upcoming documentary commissioned by the British Embassy on forced marriage were shown, which British Ambassador Bill Longhurst said “will expand this knowledge globally and highlight the efforts of the [Khmer Rouge tribunal] in prosecuting crimes related to forced marriage and other PSVI-related crimes.”