A poor grasp of domestic violence laws by police and a cultural bias that often overlooks such abuse are making it difficult for authorities to reduce the sexual and physical brutality that affects 1 in 5 Cambodian women, experts said at a meeting on Monday on preventing family violence.
Ignorance of the law is particularly acute among district and commune police, who are most likely to respond to reports of abuse, Sar Sineth, deputy director of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ legal protection department, told a meeting of the government’s Technical Working Group on Gender-Based Violence.
“In terms of challenges: No. 1, knowledge of legislation is limited among the judicial police and law enforcement officers,” she told dozens of officials and NGO representatives during the event at Phnom Penh’s Sunway Hotel.
“A lack of knowledge of the law will impact victims, such as when the police keep the victim’s complaint without forwarding it to the upper level, and sometimes they just compromise for compensation outside of the court,” she said outside the meeting.
“When the victim agrees to a compromise at the local police station, the victim is still the victim—she never gets justice,” she added.
One in 5 Cambodian women aged 15 to 64 years old who have been married or in a relationship reported having experienced either physical or sexual violence—or both—by their partner at least once in their lifetime, a 2013 survey by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and World Health Organization said.
Eight percent of those women reported being victims of abuse in the previous 12 months, and overall violence was higher in rural areas, the report said. Of the women surveyed, 14 percent said they had experienced physical violence by someone other than an intimate partner after the age of 15, while 20 percent said their first sexual experience was either coerced or forced.
Ing Kantha Phavi, Minister for Women’s Affairs, said a cultural acceptance of physical and sexual violence committed by men against their wives and partners was also perpetuating the problem.
“For the level of enforcement, don’t blame the police alone. It is also because of our society and our community,” she said at the meeting.
Like many other countries, economic dependence is an issue for victims in Cambodia, where women often feel they cannot leave an abusive partner and in some cases recant their testimony after filing a complaint.
“Women should stand firm themselves,” Ms. Kantha Phavi said. “This is an issue we need to consider more seriously. We need to give more education to our society and to our community.”
Fellow officials reported making progress in educating schoolchildren and teachers about family violence but noted a lack of funding, mental health support and a formal victim referral service.
Spokesmen for the National Police, Justice Ministry and Interior Ministry could not be reached on Monday.