The way Sokheang tells it, she was divorced four years ago.The courts, however, would disagree.
The 29-year-old Phnom Penh waitress became fed up with her abusive husband, who beat her with bamboo sticks, pulled her hair and threw objects at her.
“I could not continue living with him,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “I went to the commune to inform commune officials and local authorities that we had stopped living together and asked them to be our witnesses for a divorce.”
Unable to afford or wait for a legal divorce, Sokheang did the same thing that a great number of women in Cambodia do.
The only problem is that the “divorce” recognized by local authorities granted Sokheang virtually no rights at all.
The authorities in her commune in Kompong Chhnang province told her that she could never remarry and could take none of the couple’s property. And she has never been allowed to see her daughter, who still lives in the care of her father.
“My husband never allows me to visit my daughter,” she said. “But I always buy clothes and other materials for her studies, sending [them] via my aunt.”
The majority of those who seek divorces in Cambodia are women.
And, like Sokheang, most are faced with a legal system that few can navigate, leaving many to opt for a divorce recognized only by village and commune officials.
Under Cambodia’s family and marriage law, Sokheang or her commune officials should have addressed her complaint to the Kompong Chhnang provincial court. But Buth Vanna, a member of Samrong Thom commune council in Kien Svay district, Kandal province, said most cases that come to her office never proceed to provincial court.
“Since I work here [starting in] 1979, thousands of divorces have been received. Around 95 percent of those cases, the spouse decided to live together again after there was reconciliation,” Buth Vanna said.
If the commune council cannot reconcile a couple, it is legally bound to send them to the provincial court.
Buth Vanna said her commune took the requisite conciliation sessions seriously, reminding couples who sought divorces of their parental duties. Still, she said, “some spouses came to the commune to get divorced two or three times.”
Buth Vanna estimated that only 5 percent of plaintiffs had the funds to pursue an official divorce through the courts.
“I have tried my best to explain and inform those victims about the power of the commune level and ask them to [complain to the courts],” she said. “Villagers, however, preferred to divorce at the commune level, where they do not need money to pay for it.”
Whereas a pseudo-divorce at the commune level is basically free, it is common for those who go through the courts to spend $1,000 or $2,000 on lawyer’s fees alone, Phnom Penh attorney Kao Soupha explained.
Kao Soupha said the divorce cases he handles take at least four months to complete, but often can take a year or longer if a judge has an overloaded docket or if a reluctant spouse refuses to appear when summoned—as is often the case.
It has been nearly three years since Chanthul, 44, first filed for a divorce at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, and she is still waiting for a hearing. She said her husband, a soldier, has been beating her for years, often causing her serious injury by kicking her and striking her with his rifle.
Yet they still live together, while she waits for the legal system to release her from her marriage. She said her husband had received summonses but had never appeared for a court date.
“He told me that no one could arrest him or handcuff him, although he beat me with serious injury, because he was a soldier,” she said.
“I continue to live under the same roof since the day I [filed a] complaint to the court, because I want to get a divorce certificate,” she said at the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, where lawyers are helping her through the process. “I feel angry at the court that keeps my case too long without holding trial.”
CWCC lawyer Lam Sokuntheara noted that lack of awareness of the law, poverty, and a desire for immediate action all drive Cambodians to seek extra-legal divorces.
But she also noted that many weddings are never registered with authorities—leaving a large number of Cambodian marriages outside the law, and therefore leaving women with no recourse through the court system and with little claim on property or custody in a settlement.
Alimony and child support payments, in particular, are rarely paid even when promised by a husband, according to a recent UN Development Program study.
The study found that alimony was usually made in one lump sum at the time of the divorce, or else not at all. Women, it also found, had little assurance that promised child-support payments would come through.
In the report, UNDP noted that in some communes, local authorities are handling up to half of all divorce cases.
The report advised that the entire system for divorce be reconsidered, and that authority on the issue be granted to a more accessible local institution, such as a family court.
In the meantime, Sokheang and others make the best of the commune council’s acknowledgement of divorce. “I don’t care,” Sokheang said of the legal status of her divorce, “because I never think to live with my husband again.”