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Women from Koh Kong’s Chi Khor Leu commune last month march along the road toward Phnom Penh’s National Assembly, where they delivered a land dispute petition.
Women from Koh Kong’s Chi Khor Leu commune last month march along the road toward Phnom Penh’s National Assembly, where they delivered a land dispute petition. Hong Menea

Women ‘bear brunt’ of land grabs

Cambodia’s rampant land grabs have had a devastating impact on the psychological health of women and have led to a sharp increase in the rates of domestic violence they suffer, according to a new report.

The report, released yesterday and titled Cambodia’s Women in Land Conflict, surveyed 612 women who had been dispossessed of their homes and found a staggering 98 percent said land conflicts had negatively impacted their mental health.

What’s more, almost half of the women had considered ending their own life; 18 percent had attempted it. One victim distilled the psychological trauma of losing her land down to a simple vignette: once, she filled a cooking pot to boil water for rice but, driven to distraction by worry, it evaporated to nothing without her even noticing.

The new report, which spans 12 provinces and was compiled by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the ability of women to fulfil traditional gender roles of providing food and shelter for the family were inextricably linked to their security of land tenure. That security has been shaken for an estimated 700,000 Cambodians thanks to land grabs by companies or authorities.

More than 75 percent of respondents felt their current land tenure situation was not secure. Almost 95 percent had experienced threats from the authorities, and a third were subjected to physical violence.

The majority of women reported that after the land conflict it was difficult to buy enough food to feed the family and their medical needs went unmet.

But the effects rippled beyond the economic sphere: 23 percent of women surveyed said they were victims of domestic abuse. Half of those had never experienced domestic violence before the land conflict drove a wedge through their relationships.

An increase in their partner’s drinking, coupled with tension following the loss of land, arguments about lack of income and heightened emotional distress were listed as reasons for the sharp increase in domestic violence.

A large number of women also reported they were more violent towards their children after the land grabs, and many children were pulled out of school, CCHR land reform project coordinator Vann Sophath said. “Parents had no other choice but to make their children find a job,” he said, adding this affected one-third of respondents.

Despite tearful accounts from victims of Kampong Speu and Beoung Kak land disputes, and numerous portraits mounted around the event of women and members of ethnic minorities who had suffered

hardship as a result of corporate development, government representatives at the launch yesterday appeared unmoved.

Sakhoeun Savatty, a representative of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, dismissed the issue of domestic violence stemming from land grabs as one for police or other ministries.

“Domestic violence in land conflict is not under the mandate of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs,” she said. “Of course we feel a lot of pity for you . . . but you can follow legal procedure.”

She added that the women present should look on the positive side of land conflicts. “Maybe you can be more creative,” she said, seemingly referring to the ways in which communities protest their displacement.

Ministry of Land Management representative Vuthy Vannara, meanwhile, launched into a tirade, slamming the report findings.

“This is basically unacceptable. It cannot be representative if you survey 600 people,” he said. “The report does not reflect the real situation of the government’s effort.”

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