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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - National Assembly approves domestic violence law

National Assembly approves domestic violence law

Cambodian lawmakers moved beyond several years of sharp debate September 16 with

the passage of a domestic violence law. The law emphasizes the prevention of family

violence and protection for its victims - not punishment for its perpetrators.

"This law is very important for Cambodian society," Minister of Women's

Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi said. "It shows that domestic violence is not a domestic

issue but a social issue."

National Assembly members deliberated on the draft law for nearly 12 hours over three

days. It was unanimously approved by the 88 members present.

The law applies to all members of a household including spouses, children, and even

servants. Its key provisions include expanded legal authority for police and local

officials responding to domestic violence, as well as court-imposed legal protections

for victims.

Under the new law, police and local authorities may remove a perpetrator from the

scene, or seize any weapons that were used to commit the crime. Officials are also

responsible for aiding victims by providing temporary shelter, medical assistance,

as well as information about other legal protections.

The law also grants victims new legal rights in the form of temporary protection

orders, which can be use to prohibit a perpetrator from entering a household, for

example.

According to Doris Nueckel, legal advisor to the Ministry of Women's affairs, such

civil law measures were designed to give police and court officials the flexibility

to act swiftly to offer maximum protection to victims of domestic violence.

The Ministry sent the first draft law on domestic violence to the National Assembly

in 2002, where it failed to garner sufficient support. That version incorporated

both civil and penal measures, including punishment for perpetrators. Lawmakers at

the time balked at the proposed penalties, and they stated concerns that the draft

law would negatively affect traditional Cambodian family life.

This time around, the law's architects avoided a similar fate by focusing solely

on legal protections for victims and methods of violence prevention.

"I discussed this with several [lawmakers], and they said this version is more

acceptable to them," said Minister Phavi, adding that she feels confident that

the law will be approved by the Senate in coming weeks.

If that happens, Cambodia will be one of only a handful of countries in the region

to pass laws to protect victims of domestic violence. Thailand has drafted such a

law, and Laos is currently doing the same. Vietnam has no laws on domestic violence.

But having a law on the books means little if it isn't understood - and enforced

- appropriately.

Minister Phavi said that implementing the domestic violence law presented several

major challenges.

"We need to educate people and teach them to play an active role in stopping

violence," she said. "This is a huge mission."

For Minister Phavi and her colleagues, the coming months will be spent educating

police, judges, and victims about the law. Local authorities will undergo training

on responding to domestic violence in their communities. Judges in municipal courts

will also receive instructions on their role in administering protection orders,

among other responsibilities.

But the victims themselves may present the greatest challenge. Restrictive social

norms and pressure from family members often serve to discourage victims from reporting

domestic violence in the first place. According to the 2000 Cambodian Demographic

and Health Survey, 23 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 49 have experienced

violence in their family. But adult women are not the only victims - more than 40

percent of victims in 2002 and 2003 were younger than 12 years old.

"[Initially] several parliamentarians expressed concern that the law was only

about women," said Minister Phavi. "But domestic violence can have a [negative

economic] impact on entire families."

Though the domestic violence law does not address punishment for the perpetrators,

its future success depends partially on the completion of a comprehensive penal code

for the Kingdom. Until then, some forms of domestic violence defined by the new law

- including mental abuse - aren't criminal offenses.

"There is no perfect law in any country," said Doris Nueckel, "For

Cambodia, this is a good starting point. Democracy leaves room for future amendments."

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