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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Domestic violence systematic and widespread

Domestic violence systematic and widespread

In March, Srey Sros (not her real name) arrived in Phnom Penh from Kandal in

search of her husband. Despite suffering violent abuse at his hands for over

five years, the pregnant Sros needed him to provide for her and their two small

children.

Instead, her husband forced her onto his moto and began driving

her to the nearest bus out of town. When she refused, he detoured down a small

alleyway where he turned violent and pulled out a knife.

When her husband

dropped the knife while beating her, Sros seized the opportunity to escape by

picking it up and plunging it into his shoulder blade. She fainted moments later

and by the time she awoke, her husband was dead and she was facing murder

charges.

Hor Phally, Executive Director of Partners Against Domestic

Violence (PADV), says systematic violence and abuse of this kind is common

throughout the Kingdom.

Latest research by the Institute of Statistics

under the Ministry of Planning shows an alarming increase in reported incidences

of domestic violence. According to statistics, one in four Cambodian women

complain of violent husbands, up from one in six documented in a PADV survey.

PADV, the Cambodian Wo-men's Crisis Center and the human rights

organization Licadho routinely encounter cases of not just battered wives, but

also relatives and domestic workers who, even if extricated from abusive

situations have to undergo prolonged spells of trauma in their efforts to just

stay alive and sane.

Under the existing laws, although Sros was entitled

to relief from the police and judiciary during the five long years of violence

she suffered at her husband's hands, the chances are that the police would have

dismissed her complaint against her husband as a purely domestic matter.

Had she approached the court or the commune chief for divorce or other

assistance, the tendency would have been to admonish her for not being a

patient, caring wife, and she would have been urged to reconcile with her

abusive spouse.

"Our traditions treat [domestic violence] as a family

affair," explained Dr Kek Galabru, President of Licadho. "Sometimes even the

parents of the girl say if your husband beats you, then you must not be a good

wife."

While rising figures of reported domestic violence might merely

be an indicator of improved reporting procedures, both Dr Galabru and Phally

describe the violence as yet another bitter legacy of Cambodia's three decades

of civil conflict.

"Such [domestic] violence was not common in the

pre-1970 Cambodian society," Dr Gala-bru said, suggesting that the trend was a

cultural inheritance of the brutality of the Lon Nol and Pol Pot

eras.

Phally stresses the urgent need for a comprehensive anti-domestic

violence program that includes legal and social remedies. Such measures, Phally

hopes, will help other women avoid the same fate as Sros through the passage of

adequate domestic violence legislation which will have deterrence value, protect

women's rights and provide for rehabilitation for victims.

And that's

precisely what the Ministry of Women's and Veterans' Affairs (MoWVA) is hoping

to achieve by drafting a detailed law on Prevention of Domestic Violence, along

with a strategy for developing education, information and rehabilitation

programs.

Under the draft law, which was put up for review and comments

by the legislators, NGOs and judicial authorities on June 19, victims can ask

for a protection order restraining the defendant from contact with the victim.

In addition, the draft law includes a provision for an interim order that

ensures victims' safety and subsistence, thereby avoiding extreme situations

like that endured by Sros.

The draft law is the result of combined

efforts by the ministry, NGOs and UNDP, and encompasses State liability,

punishment, rehabilitation of victims and deterrence through

education.

"This [interim order] is a major step in providing immediate

relief to the victims, particularly since no existing law in Cambodia provides

for such a relief," said MoWVA Minister Mu Sochua. "It would also enable the

intervening authorities to temporarily take the accused away for

counseling."

More controversially, the draft law empowers police to

intervene and enter a house without a warrant if domestic violence is suspected

and allows third parties like neighbors, NGOs or social workers to press

charges.

"Now, they [both the police and the general public] think it is

a private matter and try to keep away. But under the new law, it'll be the

police authorities' responsibility to protect the victims, file complaints on

their behalf and if [domestic violence] leads to a criminal act, ask for an

arrest warrant against the perpetrator," Sochua said.

Critics, however,

say that the clause could be abused by the police. During the June 19

discussion, Nop Sophon, Deputy Director of Phnom Penh Municipal Court, warned

that allowing police to enter a premises without warrant on a mere suspicion

that someone has committed or is about to commit an act of violence could be

recipe for disaster.

"...the commune chief can be given the power to

detain the accused for one or two days before deciding if he needs to be handed

over to the police," Sophon suggested as an alternative to the draft law's "no

warrant" provision. However, Kim Sethavy, adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Sar

Kheng, dismissed Sophon's objections, arguing that the accused may not obey the

commune chief.

Mere adoption of the law, all agree, is not the solution.

Crucial issues such as the impact that easier prosecution of abusive

spouses might have on already fragile, subsistence family units and the

willingness of a male-dominated police and judiciary to apply the law when it is

passed are also under consideration.

Sochua says two separate advisory

committees - one for drafting legislation and the other for preparing a strategy

for education, sensitization and support services - have been established to

address these questions.

According to a UNDP official, all those involved

with the drafting process have had to deal with two extreme views on the issue

of dealing with domestic violence.

On one side of the spectrum are those

who, while admitting that the existing laws are inadequate, advocate soft

interventions like mediation, counseling and therapy. On the other are those who

view domestic violence like any other criminal conduct and insist the

perpetrators must not be treated any differently.

"We have tried to

strike a balance between the legal and welfare approaches, while providing for

special remedies keeping in mind the social realities in the Kingdom," Sochua

said. "It's not our intention to encourage the breakup of the family system, but

to preserve it by maintaining peace...[the accused] would be given a chance to

reform... legal remedies would come into play only in extreme cases, where all

other means have failed."

Myrna S Feliciano, Associate Dean at the

College of Law at the University of Phillipines who attended the discussion on

the draft law, says the legislation is a necessity.

"Law also plays a

critical role in shaping and sustaining the social values," she said, adding

that both prevention and rehabilitation strategies went hand-in-hand with the

legislation. "[Otherwise] the children will continue to carry the lesson of

violence into their adulthood, creating a vicious circle."

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