Mom was 20 years old in 1972, when she married Muth, a rice farmer in Kompong Thom. At first, the marriage was a happy one.
But by the birth of their seventh child, Muth had changed. He took up with other women and beat Mom. The beatings got worse. Sometimes he would lock her in the house for days; sometimes he made her drink urine.
Her children tried to protect her, but he would beat them, too, and eventually crippled one child’s arm. She took refuge with relatives, but he came after her carrying a big knife and pulled her home by the hair.
Mom was finally able to break away from her husband with the help of the human rights organizations Licadho, the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, and Khemara.
Mom’s case, and those of other women in this story, come from the files of the Project Against Domestic Violence. The victims’ names and locations have been changed to protect the families.
By early next year, women’s advocates say they will have a potentially powerful new tool to help women like Mom. In about a month, the Council of Ministers will begin final work on Cambodia’s first domestic violence law.
If all goes well, the new law will be approved by the National Assembly and Senate early next year.
But passing the law is only the beginning. Critics say Cambodian society remains unequal, with the rights and status of men elevated over those of women or children.
This law will take some getting used to, officials say.
It says, for example, that it’s illegal for a husband to rape his wife, or for a man to coerce a servant into sex. It says victims of abuse can seek a protective order, and that police can enter a house without a warrant if they think violence is about to occur.
Some of those concepts will be new, not just to the courts and police, but to the people, many of whom believe that what happens in the home is private and the airing of personal problems is shameful.
Sokhun is a 35-year-old mother of two who earns a meager living selling second-hand clothes in Phnom Penh. Her husband, a former soldier, is a violent man who still has a gun.
He has threatened her with it, hit her with it, and fired it near her to frighten her and the children. One day he beat her badly with a pipe and threw her into a canal.
Convinced this time he was really trying to kill her, she finally went to the police, “but they were not interested in my case,” she said. They told her to go to sangkat authorities.
The sangkat chief did help her, going back with her to the police, but they were dismissed again and told it was a civil matter; they should file a case in court.
With the help of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, she tried for months to pursue the matter in court, but her husband refused to show up and the court did nothing.
Since 1996, she has been trying to get a divorce. Now she is out of money and the case is still unresolved.
The new law’s goal is to protect all members of a household from abuse or exploitation by someone else living in the house.
That sounds clear enough, but in Cambodia, just emerging from decades of war, even a simple term like “household” takes some defining.
For example, many households include members who are not related by blood but who forged strong ties during the war years, or orphans taken in by relatives or sometimes strangers.
Cambodia also has a long tradition of concubines or “second wives,” with wealthy men sometimes supporting a number of different households, while others may have sexual relationships with several women in one house.
“We have tried hard to tailor this law to the unique requirements of Cambodia,” Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua said. “You have households with several wives. We don’t care who is the legal wife; we care about protecting all the women and children.”
Many households also employ someone, usually female, as a nanny or servant. She may be dependent on the household for money, clothes, food—for survival, the minister said.
“Very often they are quite young, even children,” she said. “They may have been sold by their parents, or their labor is going to pay off a family debt.”
The servants may be physically or sexually abused, either by their employers or the employers’ sons, “because they feel they own the workers and are entitled,” Mu Sochua said.
The new law extends protections to servants, employees, children under 18, second wives or “defacto spouses”, elderly people —anyone who is “ordinarily a member of the household.”
Chea’s husband, Sambath, had been unfaithful from early in the marriage. At first it was women outside the house; he would take money from his wife to give them.
But then he turned to a servant, having sex with her while his wife and children were in the house. When that servant went away, he tried to rape a new one—but she resisted, and sued him for compensation. Chea had to pay the woman off.
“Why do you behave so?” Chea asked him.
“Because I want a son, and you have not given me one.,” he said.
Chea became pregnant, and had a son, but it made no difference. He treated her more cruelly, continuing to bring women home, stealing money and her motorbike to pay for them.
Finally one day he demanded money, threatening her with a gun. She went to court, with the help of the Project Against Domestic Violence; after three years, they were finally divorced.
The law also spells out that “domestic violence” covers a whole range of acts, from threats, beatings or rape to emotional, verbal or psychological abuse.
It also covers coercion, economic abuse—keeping a person from working, taking his or her wages, selling his or her property—and harassment, a word Mu Sochua said does not even exist in the legal sense in Khmer.
“We have words for ‘threaten’ and ‘annoy’,’’ she said, but not the type of behavior spelled out in the law: “engaging in a pattern of conduct that induces the fear of harm in a person.”
The law offers some examples: Repeatedly watching someone, loitering near where they live or work, calling or e-mailing endlessly. The law also says it’s illegal to intimidate someone, stalk them, vandalize their property or enter their home without permission.
The law would also make it illegal to work servants long hours without rest, to demand that they do work they can’t handle, or to fail to provide decent living conditions, including enough food, leisure, or medical care.
Bou’s marriage wasn’t happy, but it was bearable until her husband decided he wanted to sell the family rice field to buy a motorbike so he could work in Phnom Penh.
She thought it was a bad idea. But after he took off for the city, allegedly to look for work, she decided to do what he wanted. She went to take the money to him in the city and found him with another woman.
He beat her furiously, hitting her with a stick pierced by a nail. Then he raped her and told her: “This is the last time I let you live. If you ever ask me for money again, I will kill you.”
She returned to the countryside, with no money, no rice field. and no way to make a living.
In one sense, the law has no strength, in that it does not provide penalities other than fines for violations. Mu Sochua says that’s because some members of the drafting committee saw no sense in setting penalities before the new penal code covering all crimes is completed.
“Why should we say the penalty for rape is five to 10 years, only to have the penal code set it at three years?” she said. Instead, existing penalities for rape or assault under the Untac law will be used until the new penal code is passed.
But the law does include several new tools for enforcement. One section requires the commune chief to intervene “in any act of or threatened act of domestic violence” if the police aren’t available.
The law specifies that “intervention” means the chief asks the perpetrator to come to the commune council office and stay there, as a “cooling off” measure. The chief is also required to summon police and to provide shelter to the victim, if necessary.
The police, of course, have the hardest job. If asked for their help, they must respond, remove the perpetrator, seize any weapons and tell the victims what their rights are.
A second new tool is the protection order, which can be sought by the victim, a third party [such as an NGO] acting for the victim, or the police. The order, issued by the court, can prohibit a range of actions at the judge’s discretion, from attacking a victim to coming near the victim.
Two other elements of the law, regarding emergency responses, are likely to raise civil liberties questions.
In cases where victims appear to be in immediate danger, judges can issue interim protection orders, without holding hearings, that can bar a suspect from his home, or make him stay away from the victim, for up to two months.
Similarly, police can enter homes without warrants if they believe “on reasonable grounds” that a suspect has committed violence within the past 48 hours or is about to become violent.
Mu Sochua said the loss of civil liberties is worth it, given the stakes.
“There are cases where people hesitated to intervene, and women were killed,” she said. “This law is about prevention, not purely punishment.”