A search for justice by the women forced to marry strangers

Pen Sokchan was just 16 when in late 1978 she was ordered to marry a Khmer Rouge soldier, a man who was a stranger to her. More than 30 years on, she remembers how she tried to prevent him consummating the marriage by wearing two pairs of trousers to bed.

"But my husband told the Khmer Rouge cadres about that, and they said if she refuses to have sex with you, tie her up with a rope," she says.

At that time Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge movement was in its final months of running Cambodia, and to disobey its word was to risk execution as a counter-revolutionary. Angkar, or the Organisation, the Orwellian name for the leaders, had decreed that people must marry in order to boost the population from 8 million to 20 million.

Across the country hundreds of thousands of men and women were married in small groups of perhaps a dozen people at a time.

At night Khmer Rouge cadres would stand underneath the stilted huts of each couple of newly-weds to ensure they consummated the marriage. Those that refused to do so would be "educated" to do their duty to the party. Those that still refused after three days, says Pen Sokchan, would be executed.

In Pen Sokchan's case her husband followed the cadres' suggestion, tying her up and raping her. Later that night her uncle helped her escape. Pen Sokchan, who lives in a village in rural Pursat province in western Cambodia, says her own family refused to let her stay at home.

"My mother said I had to leave because the Khmer Rouge cadres would kill us all if they found me there," she says. "So I spent nights at a friend's home and during the day I hid in the forest." Had she been found, she would have been killed for disobeying the Angkar, but this was late 1978 and Pol Pot's government would soon collapse, driven to the Thai border by an invading Vietnamese forces backed by Khmer Rouge defectors.

Pen Sokchan's story is told in a documentary called Red Wedding that premiered in Phnom Penh this month. Film-maker Chan Lida says 250,000 women suffered a similar fate to Pen Sokchan.

Even today Cambodia remains highly conservative when it comes to issues such as women's virginity and rape. Chan Lida, who is 31, says that is one reason her generation knows so little about the subject of forced marriage despite the fact that it was so widespread.

"All the women and men between 40 and 60 were forcibly married at least once by the Khmer Rouge regime," she says. "I wanted to know more about why this happened, and why [Pen Sokchan] had to suffer being forcibly married – it was not her fault."

Red Wedding traces Pen Sokchan's efforts to find out from the Khmer Rouge district leaders why she was selected for marriage. Despite those efforts, she fails to get the answers from those who held the power of life and death, and exercised it arbitrarily.

Forced marriage is one of numerous crimes ascribed to the movement, and along with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, it is on the docket for the trial of the four surviving Khmer Rouge leaders whose trial at the UN-backed tribunal starts today.

Pen Sokchan is one of more than 600 men and women who have applied to be recognised as victims of forced marriage at the UN-backed tribunal.

Lawyer Silke Studzinsky, who represents 219 victims of forced marriage, says Pen Sokchan's story is very familiar. "The arrangements [are as] she described [in the documentary] – there were no ceremonies, no monks, nothing," she says. "They were married to somebody that they did not know before, and whom they did not like and did not love and did not want to be married to."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform