Then and now: Finding love during the Khmer Rouge

When Soth Yun was a young woman, she spent years secretly in love, too frightened to reveal her feelings.

It was the 1970s, and Cambodia was under the control of the Khmer Rouge, a Maoist movement that imposed forced labour on Cambodians and deprived them of food and basic necessities, such as medicine. Anyone deemed an enemy of the government was executed.

People were also punished for having relationships that weren't sanctioned by the government, which considered reproduction to be the sole purpose of sex.

Yun's love was particularly subversive as it did not serve the government's aim of increasing the population: she loved another woman.

Between 1975 and 1979, the years that the Khmer Rouge was in power, at least 1.7 million people died due to starvation, overwork or arbitrary killings. An estimated 13 to 30 percent of Cambodia's population at the time perished under the Khmer Rouge.

The government separated families and segregated the population according to age and gender. People were considered tools for building a classless agrarian society.

It was these conditions that brought Yun and Houy Eang together.

Gender-segregated society

"We were working in the same group digging an irrigation canal. She was sick and I helped her. She was nice to me," says Yun, who is now 61, recalling how she and Eang met in 1973.

They were in Takeo province, one of the first areas to fall under the control of the Angkar, the government's high command.

Yun never said anything about how she felt. Then Eang was transferred to another work unit, and the two women were separated.

"I was always waiting for her to come back," Yun says. When Eang returned five years later, just before the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, Yun confessed her love.

Today, 44 years after they first met, they remain together. They live in Sdok Prey, a small village in Takeo province, two hours south of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Their story is not uncommon. Other women found love in the gender-segregated society imposed upon them. But surviving the Khmer Rouge while in a secret relationship wasn't the only hurdle they had to face; many of the women who stayed together have been shunned by their families, friends and neighbours.

"Things have improved but society still doesn't accept us," Yun says. "Families want women to marry a man."

When asked how, despite the hardships, her relationship has endured, Yun reflects: "I think lesbian couples are more stable than other couples. And we have been through a lot of suffering. We stay together no matter what."

Some of these older couples now support younger women and talk to their families about understanding their daughters' sexual orientation.

"We know how tough it is and we want to help them to be accepted," Yun says.

Secret love under the Khmer Rouge

A 2011 report from the NGO the Documentation Center of Cambodia titled "Cambodia's Hidden Scars", explores the enduring trauma inflicted by the Khmer Rouge on survivors and ensuing generations.

According to the report, the Khmer Rouge's objective to "dismantle the traditional Cambodian family unit" was a "major assault" on relationships. During this period, children were uprooted from their families and sent to communal homes to "foster allegiance to the state rather than the family" and encouraged to denounce their parents, relatives and friends.

Unmarried men and women often lived in separate work groups, but mixed for specific tasks. The Angkar carefully controlled interactions between the opposite sexes and imposed forced marriages where partners were chosen arbitrarily in order to weakenfamily ties.

"In a society where sex was understood as penetration, women having a close relationship could be seen as less suspicious," according to Theresa de Langis, an associate professor of Global Affairs at the American University of Phnom Penh. She leads the Cambodian Women's Oral History Project which collects survival stories from the Khmer Rouge period.

"When I told a Khmer Rouge cadre that I was in love with a woman, he thought it was a joke," recalls Noy Sitha, another woman who met her lifelong partner, Hong Saroeun, during this time.

"'If you can make children, I will give you a position in the Angkar', he said."

He assumed their bond was comradeship - something encouraged by the Khmer Rouge. He even allowed her to request permission to live in the same house as Saroeun.

"He agreed because he thought we were just friends," she says.

The women met in their working group in 1975.