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Kaat Van Horen, recent graduate from Catholic University Leuven (Belgium), spent nine months in Cambodia working with VVOB on her thesis about school-related gender-based violence. The results of her research define the baseline of our TIGER project.

In Cambodia, VVOB centres its attention on ensuring primary school learners are spared from gender-based violence at school, and on their way to school. Our focus is on three types of gender-related violence:

  • bullying,
  • corporal punishments
  • and sexual violence.

1. Bullying

Kaat’s research shows that girls are more often the victim of bullying than boys are. “Boys tend to make fun of girls by calling them ‘weak’ for example”, Kaat found. “Moreover, girls who act boyish are bullied more than boys who act girlish. For example, if a girl wants to play football, she’ll be made fun of more than if a boy wants to jump rope.” Research also shows that poor children experience more gender-based bullying than richer children, and young children more than older children.


Gender-based bullying is heavily determined by gender stereotypes dominant in Cambodian society. Women are expected to be soft and obedient and to take care of the household. Men, in turn, are expected to be strong leaders with impressive jobs. Kaat experienced first-hand how children take over these gender patterns from a young age. Not only at home, but at school too: “Textbooks depict men as doctors and engineers, while women are illustrated doing household chores. Breaking through gender patterns like these isn’t easy, and children who attempt to do so are bullied for it. That’s why it’s important that teachers are trained to act against gender-based bullying to make gender equality a reality in schools.”

Breaking through gender patterns isn’t easy, and children who attempt to do so are bullied for it
Kaat Van Horen

2. Corporal punishments

The research also showed that learners are sometimes punished physically at school. Hitting children with a bamboo stick is a traditional form of discipline in Cambodia. However, it has now been prohibited, and many teachers have received training about more ‘modern’ forms of punishment and rewarding. The majority of teachers now applies positive disciplinary methods and does not hit children anymore. “But some teachers haven’t properly understood the trainings”, Kaat noticed. “They still hit children, but with a newspaper for example, or they make children hit themselves. They think this is better.” A third group of teachers still swears by the bamboo stick.


Even though all children should be at equal risk of corporal punishment, boys are more often the victim. “Many learners believe boys misbehave more often than girls”, Kaat explains. “Indeed, girls have to live up to the gender stereotype and therefore behave more calmly. The results show that in cases where a girl does behave as disruptively as a boy, the boy is punished more severely for it. This is probably explained by teachers’ expectations that boys are stronger and can handle physical punishments better than girls.”


Because boys are punished more often and more severely than girls in Cambodia, the study considers corporal punishment as an important form of gender-based violence in schools. Additionally, the results also show that male teachers resort to physical punishments more often than their female colleagues, probably because it is expected of men to be strong leaders. There are also some indications that experienced teachers find it harder to let go of the traditional forms of discipline, and therefore use the bamboo stick more often than their younger colleagues.

In cases where a girl behaves as disruptively as a boy, the boy is punished more severely for it
Kaat Van Horen

3. Sexual violence

Sexual violence is the third form of gender-based violence that the TIGER-project wants to prevent and eradicate. Severe forms of sexual violence do not occur in schools, but parents are afraid their children are at risk during their journey to school. Schools meet parents’ fears by ending lessons at 5 PM, so children can arrive home safely before sundown.


“But less severe instances of sexual violence do occur at school”, Kaat found. “The interviews and surveys showed that some children are forced by their classmates to look at pornographic images. A girl from the fourth grade shared that the boys in her class hide pictures in her school books, so that she’s confronted with them while studying. Girls experience more verbal sexual violence than boys, while boys encounter more physical violence. For example, boys tend to teasingly pull on each other’s penises, without realising that this is a form of sexual violence.”

What now?

Kaat’s results describe the current occurrence of gender-based violence in primary schools in Battambang province. Over the next three years, VVOB and partners will train teachers and school leaders of the selected schools in gender-responsive pedagogy. At the end of TIGER’s project cycle, the research will be repeated to evaluate its impact. The Cambodian government has promised to implement the project in all primary schools in Cambodia if VVOB can showcase positive results. Kaat has, in her way, contributed to equal opportunities for boys and girls in Cambodia.