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Fighting for their rights

Workshop looks at difficulties facing women who seek divorce

MARRIED to a man who repeatedly beat her, her children and even her 75-year-old mother, Bopha lived in constant fear of her husband’s destructive rages.

However, after despairing for years, the 45-year-old from Kampong Chhnang – who asked that her real name not be used – took a step taken by very few Cambodian women: She got a divorce.

Gathering in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, representatives of the government and civil society organisations met for a workshop to discuss the legal and social hurdles faced by women, like Bopha, who seek separation from their abusive husbands.

“A divorce should always be the last option, as marriage is a sacred bond between two people,” Ing Kantha Phavi, minister of women’s affairs, told the workshop. “However … I am also sure that we agree that as there are reasons to try to save a marriage, there are also reasons to end one.”

Though comprehensive statistics on the issue are unavailable, it is clear that divorce is out of reach for many Cambodian women today. This is particularly true in rural areas, not least because of a basic lack of workers in the legal sector, said Dorine van der Keur, international coordinator of the UN Development Programme’s Access to Justice project.

Of the around 650 registered lawyers in Cambodia, van der Keur said, “only half of them are practising, and only a small percentage of that are actually providing free legal aid to the poor, so you can imagine that it’s almost impossible to get a lawyer if you’re poor”.

Compounding this difficulty, said Thida Kus, executive director of the local rights group Silaka, is the great gender imbalance within the legal profession, where male judges and lawyers are often less sensitive to domestic disputes and gender violence than their female colleagues.

Although the Ministry of Justice has dispatched a working group to encourage more women to join the sector, the disparities remain stark: 178 male judges versus 30 female, and 98 male prosecutors versus two female.

In the case that a woman does secure a divorce hearing, she must travel to the nearest court and pay a fee of 55,000 riels (US$13), both potentially prohibitive costs.

She must also have a legally registered marriage, which is not the norm for many in rural areas.

Even then, a successful divorce is no panacea for gender equality in the face of long-standing cultural bias, Thida Kus said.

“Given the local context of Cambodia, we cannot totally rely on law enforcement to protect a woman from domestic violence,” Thida Kus said. She called for an increase in economic and social programmes targeting women, as well as a broader reassessment of cultural mores.

“Right now, socially, a woman is frowned upon if she decides to leave her husband - she is looked down upon by the community, even by her own family,” she said.

The current legislation on divorce is reasonably progressive, van der Veur said, providing women with the possibility of alimony, shares of household assets and even restraining orders in the aftermath of divorce. A more pressing challenge, she said, is the “demand” side of justice – getting individuals and communities to assert and protect women’s rights.

For Bopha, a successful divorce came only after twice seeking mediation from her commune chief and paying a bribe to the provincial women’s affairs department that did not produce the desired outcome. With support and representation provided by workers from Legal Aid of Cambodia, however, she finally achieved legal separation from her husband.

“I’m not sure if he will come back, but even if he comes back, I will not accept him,” she said.



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