The Enclosure of Women’s Reproduction in Cambodia

I mentioned recently that I’d read the horrifying, amazing work of Silvia Federici recently, specifically her book Caliban and the witch: women, the body, and primitive accumulation. The argument, summarized briefly, is that

Caliban and the Witch shows that the body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged workers: the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance, as the female body has been appropriated by the state and men and forced to function as a means for the reproduction and accumulation of labor. (16)

In another section, Federici argues that Marxist ‘primitive accumulation’ involves the ‘enclosure’ not only of communal lands but also of social relations that stretches back to the origin of capitalism in 16th-century Europe and America.” (9)

In investigating the history of the enclosure (or ‘capture’) of women’s labor and bodies, especially their reproductive capacities, Federici looks to the 16th century of Europe, immediately after the Black Death killed off 1/3 of the European population.  The state response was frankly sexually domineering. The following is a lengthy quotation, but I dare you to stop reading it once you’ve begun (bold emphases are mine):

“As Jacques Rossiaud has shown in Medieval Prostitution (1988) in France, the municipal authorities practically decriminalized rape, provided the victims were women of the lower class. In 14th-century Venice, the rape of an unmarried proletarian woman rarely called for more than a slap on the wrist, even in the frequent case in which it involved a group assault (Ruggiero 1989:91-108). The same was true in most French cities. Here, the gang-rape of proletarian women became a common practice which the perpetrators would carry out openly and loudly at night, in groups of two to fifteen, breaking into their victims’ homes, or dragging their victims through the streets, without any attempt to hide or disguise themselves. Those who engaged in these ‘sports’ were young journeymen or domestic servants, and the penniless sons of well-to-do families, while the women targeted were poor girls, working as maids or washerwomen, of whom it was rumored that they were ‘kept’ by their masters (Rossiaud 1982: 22). On average, half of the town male youth, at some point, engaged in these assaults, which Rossiaud describes as a form of class protest, a means for proletarian men – who were forced to postpone marriage for many years because of their economic conditions – to get back ‘their own,’ and take revenge against the rich. But the results were destructive for all workers, as the state-backed raping of poor women undermined the class solidarity that had been achieved in the anti-feudal struggle.” (47-48)

Now, let’s read the most recent figures published by End Child Prostitution, Abuse, and Trafficking in Cambodia (ECPAT):

End Child Prostitution, Abuse, and Trafficking in Cambodia (ECPAT) published figures of rape, of sex trafficking, and of debauchery based on reports in five local newspapers: Koh Santepheap, Rasmei Kampuchea, Kampuchea Thmey, the Cambodia Daily, and the Phnom Penh Post-vp, where there were 322 cases of rape reported. The number increased by 16.77% compared to 2008, where there had been only 268 cases, and by 6.52% compared to 2007, where there had been 301 cases. The 332 cases victimized 337 persons, among whom 202 were underage girls and 2 were boys. Most of the victims were Khmers, but there were also Vietnamese, Cambodian Muslims, and Australians. It should be noted that gang rapes [when two or more men rape one girl] increased to 29 cases – in each case there were 2 to 7 perpetrators involved, and 5 victims were killed after they had been raped.
(translation via The Mirror)

Add in the notoriety of ‘bauk,’ the practice of gang rape that has become nauseatingly common in Cambodia, and some similarities become clear.  On the other hand, there are important differences: rape is illegal in Cambodia, and has harsh penalties, though enforcement is almost non-existent, especially for the poor; women currently compose approximately 85-90% of the garment industry’s working class (a polar reversal of the 16th century French examples), though the gendered resentment might have similar wellsprings.