Last month, Mao Savoeun decided she had to punish her 13-year-old daughter for going to a forbidden party. So the 35-year-old mother nailed the girl’s foot to the floor with a 5-cm-long nail.
Local police in Kompong Thom province didn’t arrest Mao Savoeun; they “educated” her about child abuse and released her when she promised not to abuse her daughter again, Stung Sen District Police Chief Srey Puthy said at the time.
Human rights groups immediately decried the lack of punishment. The Licadho NGO appealed to the provincial court to file charges, as it often does when its investigators find serious cases of abuse.
On Nov 28, the court complied. Now Mao Savoeun is behind bars as the court investigates her case.
Most people don’t think of child abuse such as this as domestic violence-a term that is associated almost exclusively with wife-beating, abuse experts say.
The National Assembly this session has tentatively agreed to debate a draft domestic violence law, which also covers child abuse in the family and could have a dramatic effect on efforts to protect children. Yet this aspect of the law has been little examined.
Child advocates say child abuse is widespread but little acknowledged in Cambodia. If the draft law passes, the problem could receive much-needed attention as police are forced to intervene in serious abuse cases.
By the same token, the law will create many more dilemmas like that of Mao Savoeun and her children-dilemmas many doubt Cambodian authorities are equipped to solve.
By law, Mao Savoeun may be in jail for up to six months before her case goes to trial. In the meantime, her impoverished family-four young daughters and their fisherman father-cannot support themselves, police claim. Mao Savoeun was responsible for selling her husband’s catch.
Are Mao Savoeun’s daughters better off without their mother? It’s impossible to know. “Of course taking the mother away is not the ideal solution,” said Glenn Miles, who is doing research on child abuse in Cambodia for the Christian charity Tearfund.
“In every situation around the world, authorities, usually social workers, have to make these decisions, and they always come out as the baddies,” Miles said. “They have to make a decision based on the best interests of the child.”
Faced with the difficult choice of leaving a child in an abusive situation or driving the child and her family deeper into poverty, this is the question those trying to protect children wrestle with daily.
“If the child could receive reasonably good care with a relative-which is preferable to an orphanage-and the mother could be worked with in prison, that would be ideal. But there are so many ifs and buts,” Miles said.
The district police who handled Mao Savoeun’s case were at a loss for what do to, Srey Puthy said at the time. “We couldn’t arrest Mao Savoeun or punish her because her four daughters need to be fed. This family lives day by day. It is very hard to judge,” he said.
“It is Cambodian custom that parents have the right to beat their children,” said Kek Galabru, president of Licadho. “When we try to educate them, they don’t understand. They say, ‘They don’t listen to us. If we don’t beat them they don’t respect us,’ and so on.”
Child abuse in the home is one of those issues that is rarely studied directly, but rather, is on the periphery of several other issues, such as domestic violence and child sexual exploitation.
Statistics are spotty. A 1999 Royal University of Phnom Penh survey of schoolchildren aged 10 to 12 found that 58 percent said they had been beaten by their parents. In a 2001 survey by the UN Children’s Fund of children aged 9 to 17, 44 percent said they had been beaten by their parents.
A household survey done for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 1994 found that 67.5 percent of parents thought they should hit their children to discipline them. The same survey found that both victims and perpetrators of spousal abuse were more likely to beat their children.
And with authorities unlikely to intervene in domestic situations, abuse drives children to the streets: In a 1995 World Vision survey of street children, 34 percent said they were on the street because of abuse.
Perhaps most disturbing, girls-often very young girls-are frequently subject to sexual abuse within the home or extended family. Of 198 cases of child abuse investigated by Licadho in the first 10 months of 2002, 133-or two-thirds-were cases of rape or indecent assault.
Licadho does not keep figures on how many of these cases occurred within the home or family. Sou Sophornnara, information manager for Save the Children Norway, said “Most of the cases [of child abuse] we see are rape, usually within the extended family.”
The effects of child sexual abuse go far beyond the violence of the act. “Young girls are in a particularly tricky situation” when they are subject to sexual abuse, said David Harding of the street children NGO Mith Samlanh/Friends. “They’re abused twice because of the shame.” They are also less likely than boys to run away from abusive situations because it is culturally unseemly as well as dangerous for them to be on their own, he said.
For all abused children-beaten, neglected or molested-and for children who witness spousal abuse, the trauma lingers for the rest of their lives, Harding, a psychologist, said. “Internationally, 25 [percent] to 35 percent of abused children will abuse when they become adults,” he said. Most have lifelong emotional problems and many turn to crime, Sou Sophornnara said.
And yet for child abuse, as with spousal abuse, authorities rarely intervene, considering domestic violence a private “family matter,” experts say. Some police even fear being beaten themselves and stand in the doorway, explaining coolly that they cannot enter without a court warrant.
The draft domestic violence law, which the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been pushing for more than a year, would force police to do something. Under the proposed law, authorities who witness violence occurring, anticipate that violence is about to happen or receive a complaint from a victim must take immediate action to protect the victim.
Under the draft law, complaints can be filed on behalf of abuse victims by, for example, NGOs or relatives, and authorities then have the duty to protect victims.
The draft law allows courts to issue “protection orders,” similar to restraining orders in developed countries, to keep victims safe while cases are investigated; authorities can remove victims from abusive homes.
The provisions apply equally to women and children. Other provisions are specifically for children, including Cambodia’s first statutory rape provision, which prohibits sex with minors (people under 18.) Married couples are exempt.
The proposed law also criminalizes neglect. Parents or guardians who do not properly care for their children can be sentenced to up to one year in prison and fined up to 2 million riel (about $500). If neglect leads to a child’s death, the maximum sentence increases to three years in prison and 5 million riel (about $1,250).
Women’s advocates have decried the provision of the law that allows authorities to relocate victims or perpetrators of abuse.
They say police could take women away from their children and property only to allow violent husbands to abuse both in the mother’s absence.
But the provision is necessary, said Dr Dagmar Oberlies, a legal adviser on women’s issues with the German technical cooperation agency. “The only way to protect children is to intervene when you see something happening,” she said.
Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua added: “We are also hoping for behavior change in society. Children are not generally considered to have rights. Many parents see [violence] as the only way to care for their child-until a law comes along and says, ‘No.'”
The law has been through the Council of Ministers and the National Assembly Commission on Health, Social and Women’s Affairs, but was left off the Assembly’s agenda.
Even as the draft law may be nearing its final hearing, child advocates have little idea of its implications, and discussion of the legislation has centered exclusively on women’s rights.
The Project Against Domestic Violence “has never dealt with the effect of the law on children,” says Hor Phally, director of the PADV, one of the main consultants on the legislation. “We only deal with women victims of domestic violence. The law also should protect children, but the reason for the law is husbands beating their wife.”
For women’s advocates, the issue may be an uncomfortable one. Women almost always are the victims of spousal abuse-but when it comes to child abuse they are often the perpetrators.
Children’s advocates have not yet had a say in the draft law. “We haven’t got a copy yet,” Save the Children Norway’s Sou Sophornnara said. In drafting and promoting the legislation, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs never consulted children’s groups, he said.
Tearfund’s Miles said, “We really want to [be involved with the law], I just haven’t got round to looking at it yet. The law needs to be very carefully reviewed by people involved with child rights, especially in terms of the way in which children could be removed from their homes and on what grounds.”
Attempts to protect children in developed countries have been problematic for similar reasons. Prosecuting parents can take away children’s financial support; taking children from their homes leads to ugly scenes of families broken up. Parents even say children threaten to accuse them of abuse if the children don’t get their way.
In Cambodia, where many children work on farms, beg or otherwise bring in family income, separating families without impoverishing them becomes even harder. When children are taken away, there is often no shelter or other place they can go to. There is also no official licensing process to ensure that children aren’t dumped in orphanages that advocates say are actually fronts for prostitution or baby-selling.
As mandated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Cambodia is a signatory, the only consideration must be the child’s own best interest, Sou Sophannara said.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has already started planning how it will implement the domestic violence law when and if it passes; the plans include training for security forces. The ministry will also work with NGOs to improve the network of non-governmental services such as shelters that the authorities will have to rely on.
“It’s a delicate balance,” Galabru said. No matter how difficult it will be to tackle the problem of child abuse, she said, something must be done. “A little spanking of a child is not domestic violence. Even I give a little spanking to my daughter. But when you see so many scars on a poor little body, that is not acceptable.”