Written by Naomi Graham.

In Cambodia, women’s safe shelters are still largely directed by ideas about protection and physical safety. However, this focus compromises women’s emotional well-being and healing processes. Thus, the intention of this piece is to move discussions on from viewing safe shelters as physically safe spaces and, instead, give much needed attention to the emotional dimensions of safety in women’s safe shelters.

Creating an environment that is physically and emotionally safe is of utmost importance to the healing process for survivors of violence. As such, service providers in Cambodia (and beyond) must give greater attention to how safe spaces are constructed for women fleeing violence, particularly in relation to ontological security.

This piece of writing uses the narrative of Thida, a Khmer woman survivor of violence staying in an NGO safe shelter in Cambodia. Empirical data is presented on Thida’s experiences of emotional safety – framed here as ontological security – within the safe shelter. The data explores Thida’s ideas about home, her experiences of trading-off autonomy for physical safety and the coping mechanisms she used within the safe shelter.

Thida was twenty-two years old and the youngest woman in the sample. Out of all the women, Thida was the only participant that had survived non-intimate partner sexual violence. Thida had been raped in her community by a man she knew. Although she had attempted to report her rape to the police, ‘they did nothing with my [her] problem’, and the perpetrator was still living within her community.

Before coming to stay in the safe shelter, Thida was living with her auntie so she could work in a coffee shop. Thida enjoyed her work and the economic independence it gave her. Before that, Thida had lived with her adoptive mother. Thida spoke of her family fondly, ‘we are a good family; we have a lot of love and take care of each other’ and her memories of home were positive. Thida was the only participant whose experiences of home had not been characterised by violence, as she explained ‘I never had the violence in my home. My family never fought with each other. My family has love’.

Thida’s previous experiences of home are of utmost importance to understanding her feelings of ontological (in)security within the safe shelter. In comparison to the other participants, Thida had lived a stable home life. Thida recognised that her experiences of home were different from the other women and that her past informed how she felt about staying in the safe shelter:

‘Here I am alone. The other women have their children. They had to come here because their home is not safe. It is different for me. It is not that I do not have anywhere to go. I have a home and I love it there.’

Thida’s constructions of home were multi-scalar: home is a place with family, love, support and, most importantly to her, freedom. Although Thida said the safe shelter was her home because she lived with a lot of people (‘it is like living with my family’) and because of her length of stay (‘I stayed here a long time’), she explained the lack of freedom was what differentiated it from feeling like her home.

For Thida, living in the safe shelter was the first time she had been denied her own freedom; sacrificing her independence had a direct impact on her feelings of ontological security. The continuity and order that she had previously experienced had been interrupted so she could be physically safe. Thida stated:

‘Some rules are simple like at home. The hard rule is about the freedom. We cannot go outside and we are not allowed visitors here. This is the only rule I do not like’.

Thida was asked to define what she meant when she spoke about freedom.

‘Freedom, it means I can go anywhere or do anything with my friends. In the shelter, I cannot go out alone and I must go and come back on time. Here I do not have freedom because I must ask the permission if I want to go out. I can go anywhere, when I stay at home’.

Thida had been staying in the safe shelter for one year and had filed a complaint with the court about her perpetrator, but she was still waiting for her case to finish. Until her perpetrator was dealt with, Thida felt unable to return home.

‘I am only here because my community is not safe. If I could choose, I would stay there’.

The above statement from Thida illustrates how she traded-off her freedom and, in turn, ontological security for physical safety. Other women described similar trade-offs; acceptance of sharing space in return for accommodation; adhering to time schedules in exchange for food security; and, overall, a lack of autonomy in exchange for access to services.

Thida shared a typically private space (her bedroom) as a coping mechanism for dealing with her lack of freedom and separation from the outside world. She stated that, even if she had a choice, she would choose to share her bedroom with others because:

‘It reminds me of living with my family before… I share my room with some of the other children and it stops me feeling lonely’.

However, Thida explained that she only wanted to share space within the safe shelter because of the restrictions placed on her movement and socialisation – it helped her deal with feelings of isolation, as she stated about the future ‘I will not need to share because I can go out and see my friends and family, I will not be so alone like I am here’.

In her future home, Thida wanted to be close to her family and friends, her own space and, most importantly, her freedom. Thida sacrificed all of these things for her physical safety.

Thida’s narratives illustrate how her previous experiences of home informed her feelings about her current living situation. Enforcing rules around physical safety (i.e., not being allowed to go out alone) was detrimental to Thida’s emotional well-being and caused feelings of ontological insecurity. However, women like Thida who are at risk of violence are forced to trade off their autonomy for access to physical safety. To cope with this trade-off, Thida looked for similarities with her old home, such as sharing space. Creating an environment that is physically and emotionally safe is of utmost importance to the healing process for survivors of violence. As such, service providers in Cambodia (and beyond) must give greater attention to how safe spaces are constructed for women fleeing violence, particularly in relation to ontological security.

Naomi Graham is an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the Royal Holloway University of London. Image credit: CC by Staffan Scherz/Flickr.


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