THE TRADITION of arranged marriages in Cambodia is ancient, and according to
observers and organizations, the custom of parents hooking up their sons and
daughters without the children's consent is still extremely
Glue-sniffing kids on the streets of Phnom Penh. According to Sebastien Marot, broken families are the main reason that an ever-increasing number of Cambodian children end up as street kids
However some observers say it is time to consign the practice to
history because the personal costs are too high.
Arranged marriages are
seen as a means of creating connections and strategic alliances between families
- a useful tool in a society where impunity and corruption are rampant and
people are left to fend for themselves.
But at the same time, experts
say, this tradition creates a curse of very loose-knit families that break up
easily. It instigates conflict between children and their parents. It feeds
prostitution, when husbands look for fun and pleasure outside the home. And
while it may not always be the actual cause of domestic violence, it certainly
makes it more difficult for a battered wife to leave her spouse.
children and community organization Friends/Mith Samlanh recently interviewed
people in the Bassac squatter area in Phnom Penh, they found that 53 percent of
the women between 20 and 25 years old lived in arranged marriages. Others say
that arranged marriage is the rule rather than the exception in all walks of
Cambodian life - rich, poor or middle class, rural or urban, educated or not
"Marriage is very important for all Cambodians. And I believe
the majority of all marriages are still arranged," says Sou Sophorn Nara of the
children's organization Redd Barna.
As it happens, his mother is
currently trying to arrange for him to marry a hand-picked woman. Sophorn Nara
is still trying to talk her out of it.
"It is a very common practice for
parents to find a suitable match for their sons and daughters - often through
astrologers," says Eva Galabru of the human rights group Licadho.
problems begin when one of the children is in love with someone else, and in
that situation, the girls are often worse off than the boys. There is a lot of
pressure on women to get married. A girl will say no in the beginning, but she
has the whole world against her, so she finally accepts the match. This makes up
for ugly, unhappy marriages".
Galabru points to cases where girls as
young as 13 have been forced to marry much older men.
Sometimes, a future
wife decides that the uncertain fate of running away from home is better than
being forced to marry a man she doesn't want. Friends/Mith Samlanh has seen a
certain number of cases where 15, 16, and 17-year-old girls have chosen street
life to married life.
"These girls risk ending up in prostitution. In any
case, they will never again be regarded as 'good girls' by their families,
because they ran away from home and defied their parents' wish," says Sebastien
Marot of Friends/Mith Samlanh.
"It is different for the boys. They are
considered to be like gold - always shiny - whereas the girls are like cloth -
the stains stay on. Parents see their daughters as family assets - an item they
can sell when and to whomever they want."
When couples are forced to
marry, the emotional ties between the spouses often remain very weak. The
husband considers his wife a child-bearing device and looks to prostitutes for
entertainment and pleasure.
It is not unusual for these families to break
up quickly. And when their parents find a new partner, children from the first
marriage often find themselves with hostile step-parents who would rather see
the back of them.
According to Marot, broken families are the main reason
that an ever-increasing number of Cambodian children end up as street
Whereas arranged marriages may be a contributing factor in domestic
violence between spouses, Berta Travieso from the organization Project Against
Domestic Violence (PADV) says the real reason a husband beats his wife is for
him to feel powerful and for her to be powerless.
A survey conducted by
PADV in 1996 among 2,500 people showed that 16 percent of all women had been
abused by their husbands and 8 percent had been injured and needed medical
treatment because of the abuse.
Also, the survey revealed that domestic
violence in Cambodia takes on a particularly crude and raw character, with
stabbings, shootings, threats with knives and guns, burnings and chokings among
the abuse - sometimes teetering on the edge of torture.
But no matter how
seriously the wife has been injured after an assault, she will almost certainly
be told to stay with her husband, when she finally sums up the courage to seek
help from authorities, village elders or relatives.
They will try to
reconcile the couple, advise the woman to endure the abuse - and maybe tell her
to cook better food or start using make-up so that her husband might like her
more. This is especially common for arranged marriages.
"If a woman is in
an arranged marriage and she says she wants to divorce her husband because he is
beating her up, it is practically the same as saying that her family was wrong
when they paired her with this man," says Travieso. "That will put shame on the
family, so the woman faces a lot of obstacles when she wants to get out of a
violent marriage. Even her own family will never forgive her for leaving her
Many battered women take their frustrations out on their
children, beating them up to release their own anger - and thus propagating the
cycle of violence.
For those few women who eventually decide to leave
their abusive husbands, justice and compensation are not easy things to come by,
Galabru of Licadho refers to a case of a young woman who
sustained multiple fractures to her arm after a particularly harsh beating by
One night he came home drunk and started yelling at her.
When she tried to protect herself and her 10-month-old baby, the husband grabbed
a metal bar and hit her on the arm.
Eventually, neighbors called police,
who took the furious husband away. The woman went to a shelter, filed for
divorce and lodged an official complaint against her spouse.
when the divorce settlement was reached, the woman agreed to drop the complaint.
She was supposed to get $15,000 in compensation, but received only $3,000, of
which the police took half.
"When we asked her why she had agreed to
this, she answered: 'If I had refused, he would have paid off all the police,
and I wouldn't have been any better off'," says Galabru. "I guess she was