In Kompong Thom province last year, a 24-year-old woman was tied up and beaten before her husband doused her with acid. Last week in Kandal province, a 21-year-old was stabbed to death by her boyfriend. Days earlier, a soldier killed his longtime girlfriend and burned her body outside their house.
While some of the worst cases of domestic violence make it into news reports, it is far more common for victims to keep quiet, according to a report released on Friday that details the impact that violence against women has on society as a whole.
“The health and social consequences are staggering,” Women’s Affairs Minister Ing Kantha Phavi writes in a foreword to the National Survey on Women’s Health and Life Experiences in Cambodia, which was coordinated by the World Health Organization.
“Violence not only affects the women who are survivors themselves, but the children who are exposed to it and ultimately the broader community,” the minister writes.
The research included interviews with 3,574 women aged 15 to 64, with most of the findings focusing on women who had been in a heterosexual relationship. The report concludes that domestic abuse is a pressing public health concern, citing its lasting impact on women’s physical and mental health, and its toll on the country’s economy.
The survey found that 21 percent of women had suffered physical or sexual violence—or both—by an intimate partner. Two-thirds of those victims said the abuse considerably affected their physical or mental health.
According to the study, Cambodia has made little progress in dealing with domestic violence: A comparable 2005 survey found that 22 percent of women experienced abuse at the hands of their partner.
In the latest survey, 49 percent of women who reported being a victim of abuse said that they never told anyone about the problem, with most who did talk about the problem turning to a parent, sibling or neighbor, and 6.5 percent reporting to police. Only 2 percent sought legal advice or went to the courts for help.
“This indicates that women in Cambodia feel that the legal system has little to offer them in terms of protection or assistance,” the report says.
Domestic violence is so endemic that many women do not view it as a problem. Almost half of the survey’s respondents believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife in some circumstances. More than a third said that not wanting to have sex was not an “acceptable” reason to rebuff your partner.
The report details the most immediate health impacts of domestic violence, and says the most common physical abuse is hitting or kicking, resulting in bruises, scars, sprains or dislocations. Among women who experienced injuries, 90 percent claimed they needed medical care but 47 percent of them said they never received it.
A significant factor in the lack of medical attention is women’s own reluctance to seek proper care—buying over-the-counter medication instead—which the report said was likely due to the stigma attached to having experienced abuse.
But the study also found that medical workers are often either unavailable or ill-equipped to deal with physical, sexual or emotional abuse, particularly in rural areas.
“At present, the health care system in Cambodia does not have sufficient protocols in place to specifically address and respond to [violence against women],” the report says.
Beyond physical injuries, the report also found that abused women are significantly more likely to carry emotional distress and suicidal tendencies than women who never experienced violence. It concludes that these costs burden society at large, with injuries and emotional trauma disrupting a woman’s ability to work, causing them to take days off, and reducing economic productivity.
The government has long recognized the need to address violence against women, passing the Law on Domestic Violence and Protection of Victims in 2005. In February, it launched the Second National Plan on Violence Against Women.
But Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia, said on Sunday that there is still a long way to go.
“The policies are not bad,” Ms. Sopheap said. “But law enforcement is very poor because we don’t see good practice.”
And as long as violence against women goes on with impunity, many women will remain unable to fully participate in society, she added.
“It makes them feel they could not talk or they are afraid of violence, so how could they exercise their rights?”