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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A broken road

A broken road

Kaing Menghun and Kim Samath find out whether divorce spells the end of respectability or the start of a better life for Cambodian couples on the outs.

Hooray! It's over
Different perspectives on divorce

With a little help from a frog
There is a small but growing trend among people in Japan to pay significant sums of money to end their marital unions in style. These divorce ceremonies, which cost more than US$600, begin with families walking behind the soon-to-be divorcees, sitting in two rickshaws. Upon arrival at the mansion, their wedding rings are smashed with a gavel that has a frog’s head, as frogs represent change in Japan. “I started this ceremony ... thinking that there should be a positive way to end a marriage” Hiroki Terai, a pioneer of the ceremony, told Reuters.
This is how much I don’t care
Divorce parties are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, although they take many different forms. Often the bride or groom will have their own party to celebrate being single. One of the more entertaining examples is a Las Vegas party thrown by Shanna Moakler, a nude model who often faced marital difficulties, where a faux wedding cake had a bride standing with arms raised and a knife in hand while the groom laid at the bottom of the cake bloody and nearly dead.

Taking half the house with him
In 2008, a couple in rural Cambodia terminated their 18-year marriage with a divorce settlement that entailed sawing their wooden house in half. According to reports from the AP, the husband, 42-year-old Moeun Sarim, took away every piece of his half of the house. “Very strange, but this is what my husband wanted,” said his 35-year-old wife, Vat Navy.

FOR many Cambodians, divorce is a bad word and an even worse reality. While divorce is commonplace in many Western countries (see statistics above), divorce in Cambodia remains a social taboo and has a particularly negative impact on woman, who are often left in a highly vulnerable situation.

Although Cambodian women have made progress towards gender equality, with female education and maternal health care showing significant improvement, women’s subservient role in marriage and lack of financial independence have remained among much of the population.

“Traditionally, Cambodian women are considered patient and faithful,” said Yim Nimola, executive director of Cambodian Women’s Voice Center. She added that in addition to the many threats to a wife’s safety and stability, divorce can also impact on the entire family’s reputation, including children who might be affected by discrimination or ridicule.

These fears, suggests Yim Nimola, encourage women to wait for their husbands to change their behaviour rather than file for divorce, even if the man consistently cheats and commits domestic abuse.

Not only must Cambodian women face deeply entrenched social rules regarding marriage, most of them lack an understanding of their legal rights. Sengmon Ponlok, a lawyer for Kampong Cham-based NGO Legal Aid of Cambodia, said most women remain unaware of how to actually get a divorce. “The cost of getting a divorce is affordable – 5,500 riels (about US$1.33) can buy a stamp to certify a legal divorce,” he said.

Despite the low cost, people often do not go to the court, instead turning to local officials to get help. “Usually, they seek assistance from local authorities such as village or commune chiefs to deal with their divorce,” he said.

However, Khan Sophy, a recent law graduate working as an education officer at the Somaly Mam Foundation, said people’s distance from the courts and the fact that multiple visits are required to officially end a marriage are also to blame for the inaccessibility of legal channels for divorce.

“Travelling back and forth can cost a lot; therefore, people seek local authorities’ assistance instead,” she told Lift, adding that filing for divorce through local officials is not legally recognised and, among other issues, “children will face difficulties in property inheritance when their parents remarry”.

According to Article 9 of the Cambodian Law on Marriage and Family, women must wait 300 days after their husband’s death or divorce to avoid potential paternity confusion.

But although remarriage is legal, many women worry that the social stigma attached to being a divorcee will prevent them from finding another husband.

This long list of fears and potential problems keep many women in abusive or loveless relationships for their whole adult lives. However, as women become better educated and more financially independent, the notion of divorce is becoming less threatening.

Tith Phalla, a nurse at Samdech Aov Russey Keo Hospital, said that she is not afraid of divorce.

“If the husband harms the wife both mentally and physically and the wife bites her tongue, how long can she be patient?” she said. “If you divorce him, you can live happily and have a better life.’’

Women now have better access to education, explained Yim Nimola, so they also have a better understanding of their legal rights and how to independently and adequately support themselves.

While better education about the legality and social ramifications of divorce is needed, the best way for members of both sexes to ensure a healthy marriage is to be thoughtful in choosing a partner.

“To avoid divorce, people should really get to know eachother before getting married,” said Khan Sophy.

“They can learn from each other and create a long-lasting and happy marriage.”

Marriage in Cambodia: Surprising stats and facts

Approximately once a month, local papers publish reports about young couples making suicide pacts because their love was not accepted by their parents. **
Forced marriage is prohibited by Cambodian law, in particular by the Constitution and the Law on Marriage and the Family. Men aged 20 and over and women aged 18 and over are free to choose a spouse without the consent of their parents. *
Most marriages in Cambodia are arranged:
“43 percent of married women met their husbands for the first time the day they were married, and 78 percent had no say in the choice of their future husband.” **
Statistically, the divorce rate in Cambodia remains low. According to the most recent statistics from the Cambodia National Institute of Statistics, Cambodia’s divorce rate as of 1998 was 2.4 percent. In 2002 Sweden had the highest divorce rate in the world at nearly 55 percent. *
Read more... * “Cambodian Marriage,” by Keo Mony. <ethnomed.org>
** “Cambodia: Forced marriages,” published by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. <unhcr.org>

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