Controversial Domestic Abuse Law Under Government Review

A domestic violence law long criticized by human rights and gender advocacy NGOs for inadequately protecting abuse victims is being reviewed by the government in a renewed effort to reduce violence against women.

The Ministry of Women’s Affairs signed a letter of agreement in July with U.N. Women, which is providing technical and financial support, marking the start of the ministry’s review of its 2005 law on do­mestic violence and victim protection, said Phon Puthborey, a min­istry spokesman.

The government’s National Plan of Action to Prevent Violence Against Women, a five-year strategy plan approved in 2014, included a recommendation to review the law, which does not address violence among unmarried couples or include mandatory protection or­ders against abusers.

A 2013 survey by the Women’s Affairs Ministry and the World Health Organization found that 20 percent of Cambodian women aged 15 to 64 years old who have been married or in a relationship had experienced physical or sexual violence—or both—by their partner at least once in their lifetime.

“The aim of the review is to fill the gaps and increase effectiveness of the response to gender-based violence cases,” Mr. Puthborey said in an email on Friday. “The ministry has started working on this matter by initially having conducted internal meetings to ascertain gaps of the law and other areas for improvement.”

In December, the human rights coalition NGO-Cedaw, which represents 70 organizations, released a statement seeking amendments to the domestic violence law. The law currently applies only to married couples, children and those sharing a household, and the coalition has recommended the addition of unmarried couples and former partners, and the introduction of mandatory protection orders against perpetrators.

Chim Channeang, the Cambo­dia coordinator of NGO-Cedaw, said the current law was not compliant with the U.N.’s international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, a treaty that Cambodia’s government ratified in 1992.

“The weaknesses in the law have become apparent and the law is rarely implemented fully,” she said on Friday.

During an informal meeting with government officials early this year, NGO-Cedaw representatives recommended broadening the law to include sections on forced marriages and pregnancy, sexual ha­rassment and exploitation, and non-consensual sex. They also said the law should address school attendance, property damage and oth­er financial harm, such as when a wom­an is not allowed to work or her earnings are improperly taken.

Ros Sopheap, executive director of gender equality group Gender and Development Cambodia, said current legislation acknowledged the need to protect victims from further abuse, but enforcement—of protection orders, for example—was a big problem.

“The reality of the implementation of protection orders is that it doesn’t work, because in the community, how do you make sure the perpetrators do not return? Where do the perpetrators go?” she asked.

Additionally, in some cases, victims of abuse do not receive proper access to justice, as commune chiefs and other officials will intervene and try to mediate between victims and perpetrators, rather than send cases to court, Ms. So­pheap said.

“This is not working,” she said. “It reinforces the culture of telling victims to keep silent and continue to live with the perpetrator.”

Sarah Knibbs, U.N. Women’s dep­­uty representative in Cambo­dia, agreed that enforcement, as well as interpretation, of the law was an is­sue. She acknowledged that while the gender equality organizations would help the government develop minimum standards, the chang­es would take time to take hold.

“In the shorter term, it is also im­portant to support better implementation of the existing legal framework…to improve survivors’ access to justice and hold perpetrators accountable,” she said.

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