Cambodian women know all about domestic violence—it is estimated that more than 25 percent have experienced some form of abuse in the home. It’s men who need educating about a woman’s right to a home free of pain and intimidation.
That was the thinking behind this year’s Campaign to Stop Violence Against Women, a 16-day event organized by NGOs including the Cambodian Men’s Network, the Cambodian Committee of Women and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
The nationwide program of public-awareness events and demonstrations culminated in a march through central Phnom Penh on Saturday.
More than 600 civilians, students, government and NGO workers marched from Sothearos Boulevard to Wat Phnom, carrying protest banners and wearing white ribbons pinned to their chests as symbols of their hopes for peace in the home. More than 50 of the marchers were male, event organizers said.
Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua considers a campaign directed toward men to be a logical progression. “When we have worked on this issue in the past, women always say, ‘Men are the perpetrators of this crime—it’s them you need to work with,’” she said.
Hor Lyhong, a 23-year-old health sciences student, agrees that men are most in need of education about violence against women. “If men don’t awake from violence, they will lose everything, including happiness in their families,” he said.
It isn’t the first time the march and white-ribbon campaign have been held in Phnom Penh, but this year organizers say they noticed a new attitude among onlookers and passers-by.
“I saw many people keep the white ribbons we gave them,” said Sath Thyda of the Khmer Women’s Voice Center.
“In previous years, they took them straight off.”
One of those wearing a ribbon was Sok Lakhana, a 27-year-old vendor who works in the Wat Phnom area. “I am wearing the white ribbon on my T-shirt because I want to tell everybody that there is no excuse for violence against women and children,” Sok Lakhana said.
“I don’t want violence, not in my family nor in other families,” said 35-year-old noodle seller Chhrieng Sotheary. She was chosen from the crowd gathered at Wat Phnom to answer a question-card in an educational game put on by NGO workers.
“What does domestic violence mean?” asked the card Chhrieng Sotheary picked from a box.
“If a husband forces his wife to have sex with him: This means violence also,” she answered.
Chhrieng Sotheary’s reply spotlights a point of contention in the draft domestic violence law, which is scheduled to be debated in the National Assembly in two weeks’ time. Some NGOs contend that the draft law does not legislate against spousal rape in clear enough terms.
But regardless of the law’s fine-tuning, many involved in the issue say the draft law comes not a moment too soon. Incidents of violence against women are increasingly widespread and perpetrators almost always escape unpunished, according to a report by the human rights group Licadho.
Mu Sochua said the campaign was well-timed to publicize the issue in advance of the lawmakers’ debate. “The event gave the clear message that we are not silent on this issue; that our voices will be heard,” she said.
“I hope the National Assembly will pass the law as soon as possible, because I think violence against women will decrease once it is passed,” she said.
It’s not only wives and daughters who will benefit from the legislation, Mu Sochua concluded. “The law will help both men and women,” she said.