As the government issued a familiar package of platitudes and promises on International Women’s Day, a walk through a single rural village in Kandal offered a shocking glimpse into how widespread – and widely accepted – domestic abuse remains in the Kingdom.
Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday denounced violence against women, placing the blame on a cocktail of dwindling social morality, a lack of education, materialistic over-enthusiasm and an abuse of social media.
But for countless women living within the grip of domestic violence, the causes are a heady mix of alcoholism, victim-blaming and a pervasive view that their partner has a right to beat them.
Sopheap* is just one Kandal woman imprisoned in a relationship marked by domestic violence – her husband, often drunk, frequently beats her with a wooden club he keeps by a makeshift stove in their remote home.
She lifted her shirt yesterday, pointing to her shoulders and back to show where the blows had fallen. She does the same for her 5-year-old child, showing etchings of white scars.
“He is very cruel and brutal . . . If I reported it to the police, he would kill me,” she said. “This is my mistake – I cannot make enough food for him, and I do not have the money to buy the food.”
“He used a knife to threaten to kill me . . . sometimes I run and hide in the forest, where I fall asleep, crying.”
For fellow Kandal woman Leakna*, 41, the wounds are still raw. Her husband, who she said was a police officer, viciously beat her before fleeing their village in late February.
Leakna said her husband did not drink, but beat her because he accused her of having an affair, which she denied.
She presents photo evidence of the violence – black eyes, her wrists and elbows blooming red and black, a purple bruise on her thigh where he kicked her.
“I endured the suffering, because he is my husband. But this time I cannot endure any more. Maybe next time I would not survive.”
Leakna said her husband had also strangled their 10-year-old daughter, who then quit school because she felt threatened.
“I never went to the police, I just filed for divorce. What the law will do with him, I don’t know,” she said.
“It is the right thing for a husband to beat his wife when the woman does not do their work, but it is wrong in this case, because I did not have an affair.”
Her family members, gathered around her, said the villagers were incensed and wanted to file a complaint on her behalf, but they feel they could not because it was “a family issue”.
Sreymech*, also from Kandal, said her husband of more than 20 years, a former soldier, had recently become a churchgoer and had halted his outbursts of physical violence – for the past six years, he has resorted to “curses and insults”.
“I filed a complaint to the police, but he was a soldier. The police were his friends, so they didn’t arrest him,” Sreymech said as she breastfed her baby. “I filed a complaint to the village chief – nothing happened.”
“We [my family] are lucky there is only domestic violence between wife and husband, and there is no raping of children.”
The stories of these women are not unique. According to the recent National Survey on Women’s Health and Life Experiences in Cambodia, one in five women between 15 and 64 has experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner.
Almost half of the women surveyed believed husbands were justified in beating their wives.
The view that the woman’s culpability for the violence she suffers is not only held by the victims themselves, but by men in positions of power that are tasked with resolving domestic disputes.
Tacho village chief Hong Moeun, in Kandal’s Lvea Em district, said if women come to ask for a divorce, they will attempt to mediate and reach a compromise two or three times, before sending the issue to an upper level.
“Most of the time, they reach a deal,” Moeun said.
“Sometimes we have to close our eyes.
“The violence is not only from men, but also from women causing the problem.”
Khsach Kandal district police chief Men Sokoeun said the domestic violence complaints they receive are not resolved at the district level, but referred upwards for provincial authorities to make a decision whether or not to send a perpetrator to court.
Ros Sopheap, from Gender and Development in Cambodia, said gender-based violence violence was “happening every day” and said victims felt it was “impossible” to report their case.
“When women look at the court system or the justice system, it is with mistrust. It’s like the justice system is broken,” she said.
She called on more government funding for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which she said relies heavily on donor support to run programs.
“This is not a sustainable strategy . . . If the government has a policy, but if they do not put the money there, it means nothing. It means they don’t care and they can’t end violence against women,” she said.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was given $9 million in the government’s budget last year, compared to $502 million for education, $382 million for defence and $34 million for the National Assembly.
The Chhunhak, deputy director-general of Gender Equality and Economic Development at the ministry, said it was combating domestic violence by promoting public awareness, providing technical support to victims through the judicial police agency, and undergoing consultations to develop a second National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women through consultations.
“Cambodia is internationally recognised as one of the most outstanding countries for addressing domestic violence as a cutting issue and one that needs work through a multi-sector approach,” he said in an email.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the victims.