Facing Stigma, Many Divorcees Enter Abusive Relationships

Beating his wife was part of a daily routine for a 31-year-old rice farmer from Kampot province, police said.

But it wasn’t until he came home on Wednesday to find her out of the house—visiting her children from a previous marriage—that he unleashed the sort of cruelty that his neighbors could no longer ignore, said Ngy Huang, the deputy police chief in their commune.

After arguing with his wife when she returned in the morning, and then spending the day out drinking rice wine, the man returned home on Thursday and tortured his wife—tying her up with rope and wire, removing her clothes with a knife, forcing her to drink water mixed with salt, and hitting and kicking her until she was unconscious, Mr. Huang said.

He even doused her with gasoline and attempted to light her on fire, but the water prevented flames from engulfing her, Mr. Huang added.

Neighbors called the police, and the man was arrested on Thursday evening.

“The suspect used violence against his wife every day, but the wife never came to file a complaint,” Mr. Huang said.

Violence against women, particularly at the hands of their partners, is far too common, the government has admitted, with 1 in 5 women who have been in relationships reporting physical or sexual abuse by their partner, according to a 2013 report commissioned by the Women’s Affairs Ministry.

But the situation is even worse for women who are divorced and remarried, according to a new report.

Researchers analyzed data collected by the 2005 Cambodian Demographic and Health Survey and found remarried Cambodian women were at an increased risk of physical and emotional domestic violence, compared to women in their first marriage.

“The added stress of caring for young children in marriage creates an economic and social dependency for women making them more likely to tolerate domestic violence,” according to the study, which has been accepted by the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

“While these stressors, coupled with traditional beliefs regarding male-dominance, could increase the likelihood of domestic violence for first-time married women, the effects could be more critical for remarried women as they have already brought with them marginalized status and have already been deemed less desirable partners.”

Sothy Eng, professor of practice in comparative and international education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and the study’s lead author, said the likelihood of divorced women ending up in abusive relationships also went up with poverty.

“Remarried women tend to be unemployed and not having either [their] father or mother alive, which are indicators of the lack of resources. While lack of resource is one of the factors that might encourage divorced women to remarry, stigma associated with being divorced might be a big push,” he said.

“Pressures might decrease over time as women become more independent as a result of their increased educational attainment and employment.”

Chan Kunthea ended her eight-year marriage knowing full well what was likely to come.

With her two sons in tow, the 35-year-old moved back into her parents’ home, where she faced a barrage of questions from her father, concerned about the response she would receive from relatives, friends and a society that often looks down on divorced women.

“You need to prepare yourself for challenges, with backlash from the family, society, from whoever would be asking you questions. You need to be ready to answer those questions,” she said on Sunday.

Ms. Kunthea, regional program coordinator for international women’s rights NGO JASS Associates, was married at 24—too young, she said, to recognize the personality differences that ultimately led to her divorce in 2014.

She found relief in her mother’s support, but said she was pressured by her father, who told her to return to her husband before giving up and then pushing her to seek a second marriage.

“He worried about the reaction from society, relatives, but I told him that I know how to deal with this, so please don’t worry. And he came to understand,” she said.

Thida Khus, a prominent women’s rights activist, said one solution to the problem of remarried women facing high rates of abuse was sharing the experience of role models like Ms. Kunthea.

“I think it is breaking down: That’s why we are encouraging more role models, more young people, to stand up and show people what they can do,” she said.

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