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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Adultery law draws praise and fire

Adultery law draws praise and fire

The government's attempt to control the love affairs of its citizens may be divorced from reality, a range of analysts and legal experts have told the Post.

Some have said the legal definitions are unrealistic, its pleas to morality archaic and that the revenue required to implement such a law would be as costly as lipstick on the collar.

Article 7 of the so-called "one husband, one wife" law has been approved by the National Assembly and the Senate. If it passes the final steps to legislation - the Constitutional Council and the King- it would make breaking one's wedding vows a crime.

Such "bedroom legislation" would make having an extramarital affair in punishable by up to a year in jail and fines of up to one million riel.

For the proponents of the law - said to be a group of female CPP parliamentarians and the wives of high-ranking CPP officials - the mandate is a symbolic move to heighten moral standards. Critics claim it is a blunt political tool aimed at emasculating certain rival politicians with longstanding and much-publicized liaisons.

"This law was tailor-made for Prince Ranariddh," opposition leader Sam Rainsy told the Post on September 26. "It is for all the princes who pretend to be politicians - most prominent royals could go to jail."

The complexities of implementing legislation to improve social morality has led Mu Sochua, a key figure in Cambodia's women's rights movement, to question the efficacy of this approach to social improvement.

"If my husband has committed adultery he doesn't automatically go to jail unless I file a law suit," said Sochua, former Minister of Women's Affairs and a Sam Rainsy parliamentarian. "So as a woman I have to be aware that the law is a tool for me to take action against my husband."

Awareness of the new law as well as the courage to wield it will be required to ensure it helps Cambodia's women, said Khat Sokhim, 28, a popular singer and actress.

"The law will only be significant if women are brave enough to file a complaint against their husbands," she said. "Women in our culture are very patient and give too much freedom to their husbands as they are dependent on them for their survival."

The government intends to educate all Cambodian women on the applications of the measure and hopes to instil the confidence to use it, said CPP parliamentarian Cheam Yeap.

"We have to spread information on the law across the country to make sure people in rural areas are aware of it," he said. "Then it can be implemented effectively."

Sokhim said that women, particularly those with jobs that leave them vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances, such as beer girls and singers, could stand to benefit from the new legislation.

"Beer girls and singers are often targets for rich, married men," Sokhim said. "This law will limit the freedom of husbands to pursue love affairs with other girls."

Contemporary cultural traditions in Cambodia - for example, the phenomenon of acid attacks as revenge for infidelity and the propensity of "second wife" syndrome - often mean it is the mistress not the unfaithful husband who suffers the most severe repercussions from an affair, Sokhim said.

The new law, in creating the legal means to punish infidelity, will benefit wives and penalize errant husbands, she said.

"The adultery law will benefit women more than men," she said. "If women know about the law and how to use it they will be able to keep their husbands in check or protect themselves from unwanted advances from married men."

The potential benefits of this new legislation do not mitigate the fact that it is entirely unconstitutional, said Heang Rithy, president of the Cambodian National Research Organisation.

"This law is closing the rights and freedoms of people contrary to international conventions and to the UN declarations of Human Rights," he said.

Sochua said that making the new law workable will require a considerable investment of time and resources.

"Women will have to be given some kind of moral, legal, and financial support mechanisms," she said. "It is a very difficult thing to file a lawsuit against your husband."

It may be difficult to use the new law at first, said Pann Navy, a professional singer and actress, but it will ultimately give women more power over their husbands than they have ever enjoyed previously.

"Husbands in Cambodia are often unfaithful to their wives," she said. "Wives always worry about their husband's affairs but previously they have had no choice but to accept them - this law will change this."

The law declares that it is intended to improve the state of marital relationships in Cambodia.

"[It will] protect the dignity of individuals, strengthen harmony and happiness within the family, and improve respect between husband and wife," the law states.

Navy said it introduces the court system into the family realm as a dispute resolution mechanism.

"With this new law, husbands or wives will be able to complain to the court if one of them is unfaithful," she said.

But Sochua said whether this new ability to launch legal proceedings against unfaithful spouses will serve to improve the quality of marital relationships is debatable.

"It is a criminal lawsuit against your own husband," she said. "A woman who files a complaint will have to come up with very clear evidence, it could be even more complicated than divorce proceedings."



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