By Dr. Katherine Brickell
Sadly, domestic violence against women is one of the nation’s most prevalent human rights abuses. The U.N.’s Multi-country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific found that 12 percent of 1,812 Cambodian men in the survey reported committing physical violence against women. About 21 percent of those who had been in a relationship said they had raped a partner.
Cambodia’s 2005 Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of the Victims (the Domestic Violence Law) does provide women the opportunity to seek justice, and its very existence marks significant progress in addressing household abuse. But it’s not always easy for women to use the law, and due to cultural and financial constraints they often have to reconcile with abusive partners.
In the words of a Court Judge in Pursat: “Let’s say that I sentence the perpetrator to jail. What I do is essentially take away the only provider of that family.”
To truly end domestic violence, the legal system requires the sustained support of institutions at every level in support of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ hard work to date. The Domestic Violence Law must also be brought into tune with international standards. Women need support when they turn to the Law; public understanding of it must improve; and many deep-set opinions need to change.
When the NGO Gender and Development Cambodia, Dr. Bunnak Poch, and myself surveyed 1,177 men and women, we found that 90 percent did know about the 2005 Law. But only 8 percent really recognized that it’s a woman’s right to live free from violence.
Many people still think that women should not speak out against their partners. The U.N. study also found that 27.8 percent of men and 32.8 percent of women surveyed thought “there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten.”
The Domestic Violence Law’s stated purpose is “to establish a legal mechanism to prevent domestic violence, protect the victims to preserve the harmony within the households in line with the Nation’s good custom and tradition.”
But responsibility shouldn’t be placed on abused women to ensure “harmony.” This part of the law actually contravenes the references to “custom” in the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and needs revision.
Moreover, the Law can only be successful if there are also measures to protect women after they report domestic violence.
We found several cases of women “changing their minds” and cases being dropped, mainly because the family relies on the violent man’s income. The common practice of reconciling victims with their attackers is not a long-term solution: offenders often go on to offend again. In other cases, women have been asked to pay officials before justice is done. At best, the legal process can be very slow.
So victims need options to help them make proper use of the law: for example, some modest income support when a “breadwinner” is incarcerated; or safe houses where they can shelter. In addition, to prevent re-offending, the perpetrators of domestic violence need to be rehabilitated through more than just a promissory note or a prison sentence.
We also need to improve women’s general financial independence from men, which often makes the difference between remaining in, or leaving, an abusive relationship. Vocational training helps women generate their own income, but this shouldn’t be the preserve of NGOs alone. We have to cultivate much more public consciousness of the law, empowering both men and women to become “active citizens” who pursue, and abide by, their legal rights. Our survey showed that mass media is the biggest source of information on the Domestic Violence Law in Cambodia. Journalists can be trained to better understand and report the issues, as it is they who can spotlight examples of the law’s success in action.
Getting the 2005 Law onto the academic curriculum is another priority. This week at Pannasastra University of Cambodia, students will test their skills at the first ever “client consultation competition” on domestic violence. Supported by the British Embassy and the U.K. Department for International Development, it’s a big new step for the law program; and a great example of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs working hand-in-hand with academia to build the next generation of legal professionals.
Disharmony and violence are realities faced by too many Cambodian women. Responsibility should be shouldered not just by women, but by men, with the full backing of the community, the law and all of the nation’s great institutions.
Because gender equality is non-negotiable, and economic development can only happen when respectful relations at home become the custom. That has to be backed by effective laws that everyone understands and adopts as an everyday norm.
Dr. Katherine Brickell is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London