For 18 years of marriage, Heng Srey was never safe. Her husband, a heavy drinker, frequently beat her, berated her cruelly, hit her children and raped her, she recounted in a recent interview at the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center.
He did not provide for her family and left it to Heng Srey and her children to work in the rice paddies of Krakor district, Pursat province, where they lived.
Heng Srey, now 41, had nowhere to turn for help. She complained to the police, she said, but they were not effective, though they did take payments from her when she made the reports.
“I often complained to the commune police,” she said. “They didn’t arrest my husband-they just took him to the police station, educated him and brought him back home.
“They said they had no ability to solve this problem. If he returned from the police station and didn’t beat me then, he would go out and drink, then come home and rape me.”
In 1998, she petitioned commune authorities for a divorce. Her husband would not consent, and the commune officials sent them home to solve their problems privately.
Her husband continued to beat her until she escaped several months ago. Since then she has been living in a safehouse in Phnom Penh run by the CWCC.
It will take years of training and a pair of subdecrees from the Council of Ministers, but the Draft Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims-which is now on track to receive King Norodom Sihamoni’s signature after it was passed by the National Assembly-will hopefully mean authorities can no longer ignore cases such as Heng Srey’s, advocates of the law say.
The civil law’s stated objective is “to prevent domestic violence, protect the victims and strengthen the culture of nonviolence and the harmony within the households.”
Advocates say it will do so by employing immediate intervention measures that are unique for Cambodia in that they err on the side of caution-protecting victims if domestic violence has occurred or even if it is likely to.
“We want to fill the gap between penal and civil law. This law will help to grant protection to victims, and it is working along Cambodian tradition,” explained Sokhoeurn Sarady, deputy director of the legal protection department at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
“If you go through criminal procedures, police need 100 percent proof or they cannot help the victims. If you go through civil procedure, the court could protect the victim only as long as the victim files for divorce. Most women in Cambodian tradition do not want to divorce-they want to remain in their families at all costs.”
The law does not dole out punishments-leaving that to the penal code-but rather offers a means of protection.
It endows the nearest authorities with the duty of intervening, allowing a village or commune chief to grant a victim a four-week protection period, during which the perpetrator may not stay in the house or have contact with the victim, explained Susanne Muller of German Development Cooperation, or GTZ, who is working with the ministry on the law.
The courts can extend that protection for up to a total of nine months, she said, explaining that this extra time could be enough to help families reconcile.
Under the new law, only serious cases of domestic violence-felonies or serious misdemeanors-must be reported to police and prosecutors.
In other cases, victims are protected whether or not they press criminal charges.
“Only 11 percent of domestic violence victims seek help,” Muller said, noting that many women fear, if their husbands are locked up, they will be left alone and penniless. “They have nowhere to go because if they go to the police, their husbands could end up in jail. They may need a break to find out what solutions they can find within their family.”
Though many observers agree this law is a victory for women and families in Cambodia, certain disputes over the issue remain unresolved.
In particular, some say the law is too narrow in whom it protects. The draft law recognizes as family all those who live in the same household: That is, husband, wife, children and other dependents.
But it excludes a girlfriend or mistress living elsewhere, even though she may be financially dependent on a man or even have a child with him, former minister of women’s affairs and now opposition party member Mu Sochua said.
“In Cambodian society, men really expect these women to perform the role of wife and family,” she said. “But in the law that just passed, mistresses are not taken into consideration unless they live under the same roof. If they are [considered in the law as] members of the family, it empowers them.”
But Muller said protecting these women under the law would have been a deal breaker.
“Lawmaking is always a compromise. In this case, it was a choice between including sangsaas [girlfriends] and not having a law, or not including the sangsaas and having a law. The law takes a very broad scope because it includes everyone who lives under one roof, including all sorts of violence: Physical, psychological, emotional,” she said.
Critics of the law had over the years spoke out loudly against broader definitions of family and greater authority for the court, complaining that the code would violate traditional values.
In September, Funcinpec lawmaker Monh Saphan said the law was “a real, critical blow against Khmer society and tradition,” and worried that the law would succeed only in dividing families.
Despite some compromises, Mu Sochua said the law was close to international standards.
The law has gone through three drafts in the years since the first version failed to pass in 1996, Mu Sochua said.
She added that when she brought a version of the law to the National Assembly shortly before the 2003 elections, both men and women in Parliament railed against it, calling it “too revolutionary.”
She noted that issues like acid attacks had been dropped in the current version, and that the controversial issue of marital rape was dealt with less explicitly.
Muller said the law passed because of a more progressive environment, not necessarily because of substantive changes in the law.
But Heng Srey’s situation indicates that in practice, little may have changed. “In 1998,” she said, “I complained to the commune authorities for a divorce, but my husband did not agree. Then we lived together again and had two more children,” while he continued to abuse and rape her.
In June, an official from local rights group Adhoc heard of her case and offered to help.
Now, Heng Srey is receiving shelter and assistance from the CWCC, and Adhoc is helping her to again petition for a divorce
Everyone interviewed agreed it will take many years and a large budget to train local officials, police and the public to understand the legal and administrative issues surrounding
ing domestic violence.
But the government’s commitment to implementing the law remains a source of concern.
“What is really not sufficient is the national budget to maintain, sustain and provide services to victims of domestic violence. In order to survive life after violence you need a great deal of assistance and attention,” Mu Sochua said.
The Cambodian government’s monetary commitment is still unclear, though Muller said that Germany has already pledged about $960,000 for what is bound to be a long and rocky path to implementation.
But even after information about the law’s protection is disseminated, Mu Sochua said, the public must become sensitized to the issue and persuaded to take action-a difficult task in a country where, she said, “you don’t wash your dirty laundry in public.”
And finally, cooperation from local authorities and police must be elicited.
As of now, the government “totally relies on NGOs” to care for victims of domestic violence, CWCC Executive Director Oung Chanthol said.
It offers virtually no assistance to victims of violence, which the last national survey, conducted in 2000, found constituted 23 percent of women.
It currently runs no shelters for battered women; three shelters run by CWCC are the only ones in the country and receive about 250 women each day, she said.
She added that CWCC has been training about 400 police officers per year to report incidents of domestic violence, but only 45 percent of those actively do so.
Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman, said that the ministry already takes crimes within the household as seriously as any other.
“If they have committed serious injury or death, it is a crime. We don’t consider that they are husband and wife. Men and women are equal under the law,” Khieu Sopheak said.
Still, he said, the ministry and its officials have to rely on complaints from the victims before they can act.
“If they don’t complain to the police, maybe they can solve the problem within the family,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Chhim Sopheark)