Kompong Trach district, Kampot province – As the flames engulfed her body, So Phorn ran out of her small house in Kampot province screaming uncontrollably.
“Help me, help me, I’m on fire,” the 60-year-old woman recalled wailing, when reporters visited her home last week.
About 50 percent of Ms. Phorn’s body was seriously burned that day in April, leaving her upper body, face and ears severely scarred. Now living alone with her five children, Ms. Phorn hides herself underneath her krama. A wound on her chest is still open and badly infected.
Ms. Phorn was the victim of a brutal attack carried out by her husband, Meong Sin, 50, who is a soldier in the area. On the day of the attack, Mr. Sin told one of his sons to buy a bottle of petrol. When a verbal dispute broke out with his wife, he took the bottle, doused her with petrol and set her on fire using a cigarette lighter.
“I was trying to escape. I knew that he wanted to set me on fire, but he held me so tight, I couldn’t run,” Ms. Phorn said. “I could feel the flesh falling off my body.”
Ms. Phorn’s case—though particularly violent—is just one instance of the sort of abuse experienced by thousands of women across the country. After more than 20 years of marriage, Ms. Phorn said last year’s attack was the culmination of a long history of verbal and physical abuse by her husband. Underscoring the lack of public awareness around such abuse, Mr. Sin is still living free.
Women’s advocates say many women in Cambodia simply have no voice when it comes to domestic violence due to their financial dependency on their husbands as well as the lack of action taken by local authorities.
In 2012, rights group Licadho assisted 304 women who had experienced domestic violence, and recorded four women killed by their spouses.
A study released in 2009 by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs found that at least 40 percent of women had either experienced, or knew someone who had experienced, being hit, slapped, kicked or punched by their spouse. Being tied up and beaten was familiar to about 20 percent of the more than 3,000 women questioned, and 7 percent said they had been choked and burned, or knew of someone who had experienced such abuse.
“Women who are exposed to poverty are trapped by their husbands,” said SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who was Cambodia’s minister of women’s affairs between 1998 and 2004.
“Like anywhere in the world, domestic violence is a social issue and it is a compilation of many factors. What makes it more serious is the level of impunity here,” she added. “First of all, there needs to be a justice system. Second, information and education plays a big role, and information has to be provided to women, like knowing about the law, or how to prevent violence.”
Like many women who suffer from domestic violence in the country, Ms. Phorn kept silent after she was beaten, a phenomenon that women’s rights defenders say is due to the social stigmatization and risk of a possible reprisal from the perpetrator that comes with such attacks.
Several villagers in the close-knit Boeng Sala Khang Cheong commune said they were completely unaware of the violence Ms. Phorn had suffered over the years.
“Apparently, it had been going on for many years, but we never knew about it,” commune chief Chan Samorn said, adding that no one had ever expected that Mr. Sin was abusive until they saw Ms. Phorn running out of her house burning and screaming for help. “He was a nice guy, friendly and polite, everyone liked him,” Mr. Samorn said.
Asked why no arrest had been made in the case, Kampong Trach district penal police chief Roth Sam Ang replied that the victim had not made a complaint.
“We’ve heard of the case and we went there and asked questions. But we didn’t make an arrest because the family didn’t file a complaint. The reality is, the husband has mental problems and he was also injured. If he wasn’t ill, we would have punished him according to the law,” he said, explaining that Mr. Sin had suffered bad burns to his hands and upper body from his attack on his wife.
“Sometimes, if there are minor domestic problems, like when the husband gets drunk and abuses his wife verbally, they go to the local authorities and we do educate them. Sometimes, the wives come back and ask us to release the husband because they have a family and have children and they need the husband to support them with money. We educate them and I think it is effective.”
To raise awareness around domestic violence, women’s advocacy groups have launched projects such as the U.N.-sponsored white ribbon campaign, which educates men around the country about women’s rights. The separate “Good Men Campaign,” which is financed by the German and Spanish governments, has also launched nationwide television advertisements aimed at telling men to treat women as equals.
“In a year or two, you can change the general attitude, but to change people’s behavior, well, that takes much longer,” said Stefano Brigoni, country representative for the Spanish NGO Paz Y Desarrollo, which coordinates the Good Men Campaign.
He added that many women who suffer from abuse—especially poor, uneducated mothers—usually feel like they have no choice but to keep quiet due to a lack of financial resources.
“It is important to remember that the number of cases reported can’t tell us how many women experience violence. For reliable prevalence a dedicated study needs to be conducted,” said Freya Larsen, a consultant for U.N. Women. “The decision whether or not to leave a violent partner is a very complex and difficult decision for many women,” she added.
According to Sao Chanhorm, coordinator for Licadho, women who suffer from domestic abuse will more often than not choose to forgive their husband rather than inform local authorities.
“If [the victims] are willing, we help them to file a complaint. But most of the time, they choose to compromise and reconcile with their husbands,” she said.
To stamp out domestic violence, the government in 2005 passed the Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Protection of Victims. But the law has received heavy criticism from rights groups for wording they say actually makes excuses and loopholes for perpetrators of violence against women.
According to the law, “appropriate measures” can be taken against spouses or children “if the disciplining and teaching are conducted with a noble nature.”
Mr. Samorn, the commune chief in Kampong Trach district, said most complaints against violent husbands result in a basic discussion where the man is told to conduct himself in a more peaceful manner.
“There are many families who fight violently, and they come to me and ask for help. Usually, I tell them to live together peacefully. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” he said.
In the case of Ms. Phorn, her husband continued to abuse her after she came back from the hospital with severe burn wounds. Mr. Samorn said that after the victim returned home, Mr. Sin continued to abuse her verbally and even attempted to rape his wife and daughter.
“The woman’s family was really angry, and they wanted police to arrest him, but I told them that it was better not to,” Mr. Samorn said.
Eventually, Mr. Samorn ordered Mr. Sin to move out of the family home and live with his parents nearby.
“The woman came to me and told me that she can no longer live with him. She said he tried to rape her and her daughter as well. So I ordered him to move back to his parents’ house” last month, Mr. Samorn said.
Mr. Sin now lives about a two-minute walk from his wife and children.
“The family wanted to file a complaint, but it’s better not to, because they are poor and dependent on Mr. Sin’s income,” Mr. Samorn added. “Besides, what good would it do if he was in prison?” he said.
Ms. Phorn, swatting the flies away from her wound with a small brush, said she was mystified why she ended up back living with her husband after being discharged from the hospital.
“After we were discharged from hospital, I don’t know why he still wanted to speak to me. I told him to leave, but he is cruel and dumb. He just didn’t leave,” she said. “I wanted him to leave but always thought he might change and it would get better. But now I don’t care. I am not embarrassed to be without a husband because he burned me.”