Kath Sarom’s sister got married a few years ago, to a man picked out by her parents. At first, it was a happy marriage.
But before long the husband and wife were arguing every day. He would go out with his friends, come home drunk and demand money. If she refused, there could be consequences, said Kath Sarom, an 18-year-old high-school student wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform of white shirt and long blue skirt.
“One evening I went to my sister’s house. When I walked in the door, I heard her crying,” Kath Sarom said. “Her husband told me, ‘You’re just the youngest sister, don’t interfere in our life.’ My sister turned to me, and her face was covered in blood.”
That was when Kath Sarom made a decision: She would never let her parents tell her whom to marry.
“I need a man who really loves me, and who I love, too, to be my husband,” she said.
She is not alone. More and more young urban women are defying the ways of their parents and following their hearts. While no study has been done, officials say the trend is visible.
“I see so many girls—including my daughter—demanding their freedom,” said San Arun, an undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Women’s and Veterans’ Affairs. She noted that the change can only really be seen in Phnom Penh—life in the provinces remains largely traditional. She attributed it to increasing empowerment of young women through education and exposure to the larger world.
“Women and young girls are better informed than in the past,” she said. “They get an education and go to work in a government ministry or an NGO, so they know about society…and they don’t want to depend on anyone.”
Having their own ideas and their own income, these young women are no longer willing to accept the loveless marriages, domestic violence and lives of drudgery that have traditionally been Cambodian women’s lot.
“Cambodian culture considers a daughter a ‘bird in a cage’ who must do whatever she is told,” said Chanthol Oung, executive director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center. She said most domestic abuse comes from misunderstanding and lack of communication between husbands and wives.
“We need a long time to think about the men who will become our husbands,” said Bun Narith, 22, a university student. Two people should get to know each other, see if they are like-minded and make the decision together to wed, she said.
San Arun said the change is a positive step. Arranged marriages often work in the beginning, but quickly disintegrate because of a lack of mutual respect. Wives in these marriages often become depressed and are commonly beaten by their husbands, she said.
Marriages based on mutual consent are better for the whole family, she added. Men won’t be angry all the time, and children won’t grow up in broken homes.
However, she cautioned, women shouldn’t become too independent or they risk being selfish. “Both men and women must be loyal for their families to be happy,” San Arun said.
Even when marriages are based on love, they are not always happy, warned Eang Chanty, 24, from Kompong Thom province.
Two years ago, Eang Chanty refused her parents’ marriage plans for her—she was in love with someone else. When her parents wouldn’t change their minds, she and her lover ran away to Phnom Penh.
“We loved each other—we would do anything to be together,” she said. “We lived as husband and wife in a rented house. I became a vendor and he works as a machine technician. We were happy.”
This year, things began to change. Eang Chanty’s husband no longer shares his money with her. He comes home late and lashes out at her verbally, she said.
Marriage is complicated; people’s hearts can make mistakes. “I want to apologize to my parents for disappointing them,” Eang Chanty said, tears running down her cheeks. “They only wanted me to have a family in peace and happiness.”