For Cambodian women who are victims of domestic violence, seeking legal assistance can be a daunting task.
It can also be a lonely one, as many steps in the legal process must be done by the victim herself and not a lawyer.
But a training program by two local NGOs beginning this month is meant to help fill the gap.
Project Against Domestic Violence and the Women’s Resource Center at the Cambodia Defenders Project will conduct classes for NGO workers on the basics of helping women through the process, said CDP legal adviser Ashley Barr.
“There are not enough lawyers in Cambodia and few of those have an understanding of domestic violence,” she said. “Family law allows non-lawyers to do a great deal for survivors of domestic violence.”
The seminars, one each to be held in Phnom Penh and the provinces of Siem Reap, Kompong Thom, Kompong Chhnang and Kompong Cham, will be aimed at all kinds of NGO staff, said Barr, especially human rights workers.
Along with general information about domestic violence, participants will learn the importance of taking photos of bruises, saving evidence such as bloodied clothing, collecting documentation of medical procedures, and writing and delivering the complaint to the court, she said.
“We have to show people how to use the law to the best advantage,” Barr said.
Although a 1996 study by Project Against Domestic Violence showed that one woman in six is physically abused by her husband, few pursue legal action, according to lawyers and counselors.
“Many women don’t go to court,” said Touch Vileak, a lawyer with the Women’s Research Center, explaining divorced women often are ostracized in their communities.
At the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, an organization that gives counseling and shelter to victims of domestic violence, less than half of the clients want to seek litigation.
Counselors and lawyers complain that the process in seeking a divorce is heavily weighted toward the man, and Barr said there are many misinterpretations of the law.
When a married couple has problems, they can go for mediation at the local and district level. While the law says that if a reconciliation fails the case should be sent to court, Barr said, in practice the couple often go through several more mediations, and each time the wife goes home with her abusive husband.
And when the long process is complete and the court has finally come out in the woman’s favor, the ordeal is not over yet. Chanthol Oung, director of the crisis center, said that verdicts reached by the court granting the woman child custody, child support payments or property are not enforced if the husband chooses to ignore them.
“To go to court is already hard,” said Chanthol Oung, “but to enforce the judgment is the hardest thing.”
(Additional Reporting by Kay Kimsong)
Domestic Violence Statistics
• Sixteen percent of all women surveyed— about one in every six women—report they are physically abused by their spouses.
• Eight percent, half of all women reporting abuse by their spouses, sustained injuries. More than 50 percent of reported injuries were head injuries.
• More than 10 percent of Cambodian men report that they physically abuse their spouses.
• Women are less vulnerable to abuse when residing with immediate family. Women living with their parents suffered from spousal abuse at half the rate as that for all women (8.3 percent to 16 percent).
• Nearly 10 percent of all women report intoxicated spouses becoming abusive. Almost 50 percent of women reporting abuse said their husbands hit them after drinking. Among women reporting injury, the number is 65.7 percent.