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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia peers into the darkness of abuse at home

Cambodia peers into the darkness of abuse at home

YESTERDAY'S bruises were fading yellow around the fresh blue ones of this morning.

"If he wants to kill me, let him kill me," Mao Khorn thought, "I don't

want to live anymore."

Khorn had met her husband, a cyclo driver who nursed her from sickness, four years

before. But a year ago the beatings began, when he lost at gambling, after he drank,

when he returned home from the brothel, or for no apparent reason at all. She was

hit daily with chains, bamboo, firewood, "whatever is near him." Khorn

tried following chbab srey, the ancient women's code in marriage, but not even acting

sweetly, or begging him to stop, or keeping quiet helped.

Once he whipped her with a plastic rope, tying it around her neck and dragging her

naked into the street. The worst - maybe the worst - was when he beat her unconscious,

becoming worried enough when a neighbor said he would be arrested for murder if she

died that he went to buy her medicine. Neighbors had seen Khorn cough blood, but

were as afraid of the husband as Khorn was. But she still believed in his love: "After

he hits me he takes good care of me."

She had been badly beaten with a chain the day before a local NGO came by her house,

telling her that the Project Against Domestic Violence (PADV) was researching violence

in the home. After having her wounds stitched at hospital, she returned home. "Let

him kill me," she thought.

That was the night he might have. But he resisted the urge to hit her with an iron

bar when she looked up and quietly told him "you don't have to beat me, you

can just divorce me." The next day she went to PADV, had her scarred back photographed,

and told director Sar Samen her story.

"She wanted a divorce and to go to Battambang to live with her mother,"

PADV advisor Cathy Zim-merman wrote in her report Plates In A Basket Will Rattle.

"We took her to the hospital. When the doctors were finished we took her to

a local NGO, Khemara, which agreed to provide emergency shelter until she was healthy

enough to travel.

"Khorn stayed at Khemara for a week. We provided some money for travel and new

clothes... She left the NGO and we never spoke to her again.

"The most devastating moment of this project occurred a month later when we

saw a picture of Khorn on the front page of Rasmeay Kampuchea, Cambodia's biggest

selling newspaper. "...And she, who once married a cyclo driver who nursed her

back to health, was found hanging by a plastic rope to the ceiling rods of her bamboo

lean-to."

That was December 1994. PADV's research was the first public airing of domestic violence

in Cambodia, but a qualitative, rather than statistical one. "We simply don't

know what percentage of homes are affected," Zimmerman said at the time.

Last week, the Ministry of Women's Affairs and PADV, helped by staff from the Education

Ministry and the Statistics Institute and funded by the Canadian NGO IDRC, published

Cambodia's first statistical survey on domestic violence.

They found one woman in every six is being physically abused, and half of those abused

women are being injured. Extrapolated countrywide, the figures suggest around half

a million women are being abused at home and a quarter million injured as a result.

"I can't think of any area where more people are having their basic human rights

abused... this is the biggest single human rights issue in Cambodia," said one

senior rights worker. Zimmerman said it could also prove that domestic violence was

the Kingdom's single biggest public health issue.

The study was made over six provinces and Phnom Penh. More than 1,300 women and 1,250

men were interviewed, men interviewing men, and virtually no-one refused to answer

the questionnaire.

"We dressed simply. We did not carry a lot of documents. We made friends with

the women we interviewed," said Ros Sopheap, one of PADV's field coordinators.

"We took time before asking them if they had ever been hit, and never used the

word 'abuse'."

One of the toughest things for interviewers was the women's perception that their

problems were going to be solved. "So many asked us to help them to make sure

their husbands wouldn't hit them again... I couldn't promise to help them, I could

only tell them to be strong," Sopheap said.

Of every ten people interviewed, seven claimed they knew of at least one family where

domestic violence occurs. "Women would say no, they weren't being hit, but pleaded

with us to talk to someone nearby because they were being hit. Of course we couldn't

do that," Sopheap said, because the survey had to be faithfully random.

"Neighbors would gather around saying 'Interview me, I am being hit by my husband.'

Many times, the woman would be crying, her mother crying, and the interviewer crying."

Lead researcher Erin Nelson said that the one-in-six figure of Cambodian women being

abused was "not outrageously high compared to other countries," but was

almost certainly understated. In Malaysia for example, only nine per cent of people

knew of violence occurring in other families - in Cambodia, it was more than 70 per

cent.

The survey's most pronounced finding was the huge number of women (eight per cent)

being injured in the home: slapped, kicked, punched, hit with sticks, stabbed, choked

and shot. Half of those injured were being attacked about the head - again extrapolated

countrywide, maybe 125,000 women.

One interviewee carried the recent branding of a metal grill that had been sitting

in a fire cooking the family's dinner of fish. Zimmerman's Plates study told of a

woman held captive in her own home, able to communicate only through a crudely cut

hole in a door.

"Many, many cases were so similar. I don't know if there was a single worst

case," Sopheap said, "but whatever we were told, there seemed to be no

end. I don't know how to describe how bad the situation is."

"While most Cambodians think of domestic violence as an internal family problem,

this survey shows that it is an enormous, costly social problem which must be addressed

by the government, NGOs, health workers, monks - by everyone," said director

Samen. "But this is a problem which can be solved, because the survey also showed

that almost 100 per cent of the respondents know that domestic violence is wrong."

Wrong, but many consider such behavior normal. "Even when the victims said they

had their bones broken, they thought it was normal, a family problem" said Sopheap.

Keat Sukun, secretary of state for Women's Affairs, has since at least March 1994

talked about the need for laws protecting women's rights in labor, health, social

welfare and safety from domestic violence. He is considered a forward thinking administrator,

and told a seminar last week that domestic violence was a "crime" - an

admission that State officials in some other neighboring countries have found impossible

to make.

However, penalties specifically against domestic violence that the ministry wants

included in the penal code have met with little success. The ministry does not have

sufficient political clout, even as it says domestic violence is its number one priority.

PADV maintains that Zim-merman's 1994 comments about the Kingdom's laws still hold

true. There is almost no legal intervention in cases of domestic violence; police

almost never respond to reports of women being beaten in the home; and arrests, if

ever made, are based not on the assault but on the extent of the injury suffered.

The PADV survey said that one in three abused women sought help from neighbors, but

one in three sought no help at all. Only one in every 100 went to the police, either

because they didn't believe being hit by their husband was a crime, or they thought

that the police wouldn't help anyway.

Divorce, besides being seen as "shameful", is also legally discouraged.

Couples are required to work toward reconciliation, a process that usually takes

a year or more, and the general knowledge of the divorce law is scant.

"Some women are lucky enough to find someone in authority to grant a divorce,"

Sopheap said. "It might be the husband's boss, or if the husband is in the army

or the police, their superiors. Even the village chief," she said.

Such divorces - Zimmerman called them "extra judicial" divorces - were

better than keeping a woman locked into a violent marriage, even if the decisions

were technically illegal, Zimmerman said.

Recently, a Cambodian provincial judge granted what lawyers say is the first ever

ruling - albeit at the moment an interim one - in favor of a battered woman. The

judge gave temporary custody of three young children to the woman, told the husband

to find another place to live, forbade him selling the joint property, and ordered

a lump sum payment of maintenance to the woman once the property is eventually sold.

"Cambodia's laws are probably more liberal than most places in the world. The

court has wide powers to intervene and change the status quo," said one lawyer.

"It's just a matter of training judges to use them."

Khmer Institute of Democracy director Lao Mong Hay said that drafting more laws was,

because of the lack of expertise in policing and exercising them, a piecemeal approach

that while helpful "doesn't touch the real causes of our troubles, which includes

domestic violence."

Though some Khmers say that the problem was just as pronounced in Cambodia during

the 1950s and 60s, Mong Hay disagrees, saying "in the old days we had more respect

for women. For generations, boys were taught to behave so they could find brides

more easily.

"Before I left in 1972 I had never come across so many broken marriages as I

do now," he said.

Mong Hay said the Khmer Rouge regime actively broke down family values, substituting

them with the Angkar or the higher State organization. Family morals and guidance

were lost. Under the later State of Cambodia regime, people living within Cambodia

were indoctrinated in hate, vendetta and revenge; while those in the border camps

grew up with fear, dislocation and alienation, he said.

PADV's survey proved that the number of women being abused in marriage rises the

farther away they live from their own parents (if the parents are living in the same

house, one in thirteen women report abuse; when the parents live outside the village,

or are both dead, the number jumps to nearly one in five).

Mong Hay, quoting "a polluted society produces polluted offspring", said

a life concentrating only on survival had destroyed cultural and ethical values.

This was manifest in the rise of domestic violence and crime; people being shot after

simple traffic accidents; to Khmer newspapers using angry, abusive language.

Buddhist teachings in the pagoda were often shallow and irrelevant, and preaching

was not generally linked with the reality of Khmer life. "And I haven't noticed

many other religions instilling ethical values either... I don't mind which [religions

they are], as long as they promote peaceful coexistence within the family.

"There is a lot of emphasis on training women. But we believe men have got to

be trained to cope with family life. Like prostitution, domestic violence is a man's

problem," he said.

Community education seems to be the best solution, though NGOs say more money and

resources need to be invested, and quickly. Khemara Family Support Services program

officer Sem Meanvy notes that in the two villages her NGO has been working in since

1994, the incidence of domestic violence has dropped.

"[Battered] women are aware what's going on, but can't seem to respond. But

all they need is to talk to someone. They just need encouragement and to be empowered."

Khemara operates one of two refuge shelters in Phnom Penh, currently housing four

women and their six children. Other organizations are planning more shelters in various

provinces in the coming months.

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