WHEN Sieng Sochann became pregnant with her son, there were no celebrations. There were no well-wishers or baby showers ahead of the child’s birth. Instead, in a small house in a village outside Battambang, her husband brutally assaulted her in an effort to make her miscarry.
“He wanted me to take that baby – take it out,” she says, speaking through a translator just ten minutes drive from her former home, which became a place of daily horror.
“I wouldn’t give up. He tried to force me, and hit me so hard on the belly.”
Sochann, 29, is paralysed from the waist down. Her husband, who beat her regularly, was convinced she would pass onto his child the disability which blighted her own life, and made it so easy for him to abuse her.
Dismissed by their communities and often their families, women with disabilities are far more likely to suffer rape, be beaten and subject to domestic slavery as a result of their condition.
A report published in February found that a quarter of women with a disability – anything from a landmine injury to being deaf, blind or mentally impaired – have suffered violent abuse from a family member. Another five per cent have been sexually abused, according to the Aus-AID-funded project, named Triple Jeopardy.
Disabled women, it was found, were commonly shamed by their communities, hidden and at worst sexually or violently abused by family members – everything from being slapped, pushed and kicked to rape and coercion.
More women with disabilities (5.1 per cent) than those without (1.1 per cent) also reported being physically forced to have unwanted sex by someone other than a partner.
Although no statistically significant differences were found between the two groups in violence perpetrated by partners, those with disabilities were 4.2 times more likely to have their activities and whereabouts monitored by them.
They were also less likely to tell anyone about the violence, although many admitted deep physiological trauma and some considered suicide.
A group of five organisations including Banteay Srei, a Cambodian women’s rights NGO, the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO), CBM-Australia, a disability-focused development agency; the International Women’s Development Agency, and Monash University, surveyed 354 women, both disabled and non-disabled, from four provinces.
The women revealed abuse stretching back lifetimes, says Channtey Heng, Senior Program Officer at DPO, who coordinated focus groups and in-depth interviews with disabled and non-disabled women in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kampong Speu.
“The women who are deaf and blind were most affected by sexual violence. Deaf women cannot call to other people to help. One woman we spoke to was raped and had a baby – we asked her which one [of the men] was her husband, and she said she didn’t know.”
“Another case in Kampong Speu, she stays at home and cannot go out because her parents keep her in the house and kick the door. One man from the village comes everyday to her home and also raped her.”
The problem, she said, is fuelled by poverty and low education.
Families will not send disabled children to school - they are reluctant to spend the money and believe it will bring shame, she says.
“They are afraid that everyone will see their child and look down on their family.”
It’s a situation with which she is familiar. As a child growing up in Kampong Cham she contracted polio. For years, her extended family called her ‘Polio’.
“Whenever I went to visit my aunt or uncle they called me by my disability. When I started working in the DPO I said, ‘you cannot talk like this, because this word means you are discriminating.’ I tried to lobby them and make them aware.”
“When I started working here in 2005, everywhere I would go people would look down on me. They would laugh at me because of my disability. On every TV channel they didn’t talk about disability, there was no sign language. But after we started work, putting up posters, putting the word out on TV, we’ve seen a change.”
There has been progress. Last year, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified and the Cambodian Law on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, first drafted in 2001, was approved by Cambodia’s National Assembly in 2009.
Two TV channels now feature programmes with sign language and education for deaf children is improving.
The DPO is lobbying the Ministry of Information to produce Braille and greater access to TV and cinema says Heng.
But widespread discrimination remains, she says.
“Now when I walk around in the city, nobody looks at me. But when I went to the villages, everyone talks to each other – and looks – so strange!”
For attitudes to change, the future will rest on women like Sochann, the Triple Jeopardy report suggests.
Examples from other developing countries are cited, including training women to act as advocates for others with disabilities.
While Sochann’s story is sadly not unusual for its suffering, the next chapter is far less common.
Sochann was 12 years old when she was hit in the back by a stray bullet fired during a gun battle in her village, while she was on her way home from the market with her grandmother.
Amongst the chaos of the Khmer Rouge era fighting, her injury was left untreated for two weeks until doctors discovered her backbone was broken, and she was paralysed.
“When it happened people didn’t know whether I would live or die. My father thought it would be too hard to live, and wanted to inject a needle to kill me.”
Her mother insisted her life be spared, but, deemed useless by her family, her childhood was deeply unhappy. Her father hit her – her head was so badly beaten she can only hear properly in one ear. She was bullied at school and ostracised by the local community.
“Sometimes when I went to the market, no-one wanted to sell to me. They thought I was a beggar.”
After she married eight years later, her husband abused and imprisoned her.
It was a daily routine of abuse and humiliation. He came home drunk and locked the door behind him. Then he beat and raped her repeatedly, she says.
One day, she threw herself out of a window into the lake next to their house to escape from him. She dragged herself out and called to the neighbours for help.
Sometimes he picked her up and set her down in the mud, during the night while the neighbours were asleep.
She was left deeply traumatised.
Today, she is coach and mentor to Cambodia’s first all-female wheelchair basketball team, a team of 14 athletes from Battambang, many of whom have suffered a catalogue of abuses. She also runs a successful sewing business.
After enduring years of violence at home, she divorced her husband and left the home with her son.
“He would always go out and get drunk and become violent with me. I couldn’t fight it. I couldn’t be bothered with the violence from him so I decided to divorce.”
She joined a wheelchair racing programme with the CNVLD, a local NGO founded 17 years ago which works rehabilitating disabled people through sport and was responsible for a highly successful disabled volleyball programme which caught the nation’s attention.
2007 Cambodia Standing Volleyball World Cup at the Olympic Stadium in November of the same year was the first ever World Cup sports event to be hosted in the nation
host team came second
When the organisation started a wheelchair basketball programme in Battambang last July, Sochann became its leader.
She’s come a long way from when she joined the organisation. She was “extremely shy, browbeaten - no pride, no leadership,” says Christopher Minko, the founder of the Cambodia National Volleyball League Disabled (CNVLD).
Now she coaches the athletes, most of whom live in abject poverty, shares her stories about domestic abuse and encourages them to develop professional skills.
The athletes train hard and are paid $40 a month.
“Sochann’s definitely a leader now. It ends up with a whole lot of Sochanns at the end and at that point they can go and build their lives again,” says Minko.
On a hot March afternoon at the physical rehabilitation centre in Battambang, the basketball pitch is crowded with spinning wheelchairs. They clash together, wheels interlocked, arms outstretched, letting out delighted shrieks. It’s women versus a group of men from the centre. The women dominate. A girl with flying black braided hair whirls from the group, seizing the ball from her opponent’s grasp, and races towards the goalposts.
On the sidelines Sochann watches intently. As well as their players’ coach, she is their friend and mentor. At the weekends they train at the centre, and during the week, Sochann helps many of them to learn to sew at her own home.
“I teach them and share something about my experience with violence. Now they have the medium to get training about violence, and they know about human rights, woman rights. Before, when men were violent to the women, they didn’t know where to go and get someone to help.”
Of the 14 women, more than half have been sexually abused, says Minko.
Others are cruelly treated by their families and communities.
At 22, Ek Sreymom, is one of the younger athletes. When she was a child a misused injection caused her to lose mobility in her legs.
Her family forces her to stay at home and work around the clock.
“My sister uses me to sew, night and day, almost all the time – I cannot sleep well.”
However, since she started the basketball programme, the situation has improved, she says.
“Before, people looked down on me, but since I have had a job they have stopped looking at me that way.”
She is saving money to buy a sewing machine so she can open a tailoring business.
She is unmarried – when a blind man asked her to marry him, her father stopped the marriage.
Another woman, who asked not to be named, says a man, also disabled, asked her to marry him but her mother wouldn’t allow it, she says.
That was three years ago. She has not married since and is afraid to look for someone new because of her mother. Does she think it is harder for disabled women to find a partner?
Yes, she says, quietly.
“When I want to have friends come to visit the house, my mother won’t allow me. When I’m with friends, she always calls me away.
“I go to talk to the neighbours, but they walk away from me. Two people will be talking together and I’ll come but they’ll go away.”
They are afraid of infection, she says.
For Heng, it’s a matter of equality.
“It’s not the physical thing we should be looking at, but the heart and mind is the one that you need. If you are not disabled, you can have an accident or become sick, and become disabled. You don’t need to see the outside, the disability – you need to see the inside, the ability.”
For Sochann and the 14 women on the court, there’s no question of ability. As the match against the men intensifies, the spinning chairs get wilder and the screams louder as shot after shot sinks through the right net.