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Tieng Chhuon, the second wife of Uon Yoeun, with a picture taken at their son’s wedding.
Tieng Chhuon, the second wife of Uon Yoeun, with a picture taken at their son’s wedding. Eliah Lillis

To have and to hold: polygamy in the Kingdom

Despite being illegal, the practice of taking multiple wives is common but seldom discussed. While often powerless themselves to get out of relationships, women sometimes must share their husbands – a situation fraught with social stigma. Post Weekend explores what motivates men to marry twice and how women cope with the shared arrangement.

Amid the flurry of colour in village wedding ceremonies, May Ty and Tieng Chhuon always make a point of sitting together and sharing a meal.

Ty, at 65, wears her hair shorn close to her head and a small smile plays on her lips; she is partly paralysed on her right side. Chhuon, a little older at 69, is wiry with grey-streaked hair framing her face.

Apart from this little wedding ritual, they don’t have much else in common – except for one major thing: their husband.

The women, who live in houses barely 100 metres apart in Kandal’s Kien Svay district, are both wives to Uon Yoeun.

Chhuon is just one of Cambodia’s countless “second wives”.

Multiple marriages are common in the Kingdom, though they are rarely talked about openly due to a mixture of secrecy and stigma. Instead, the understanding that certain men have many wives simmers just below the surface of Cambodia’s cultural consciousness.

There are exceptions; living in the public eye, the late King Norodom Sihanouk had six wives and several concubines, and was married to two or three wives simultaneously.

While it is commonplace for Cambodian men to keep mistresses, there is a trend of the “other woman” being elevated to wifely status.

This can take place with official marriage certificates, but second “marriages” are also practised informally, especially in rural areas, with many couples not obtaining official wedding documents.

This is where the thin line between a committed mistress and a second wife blurs.

Double the love
For more than 20 years, Yoeun and his two wives Ty and Chhuon have managed to attain a quiet marital harmony.

When Ty, 65, is too unwell to attend one of her 10 children’s wedding functions, Chhuon will go in her place. Chhuon has two children of her own, who also call Ty “mum”.

“I never think about them getting divorced,” Chhuon says. “It is a good relationship; we are all very close and loyal to each other. I do not have any intention to cause anything bad for them.”

Chhuon remembers meeting her husband in the rice fields. She doesn’t know if fate or luck were involved. “I don’t know why I fell in love with him. I just did,” she says.

“I felt very scared the first wife would be angry, but there was never a big problem. She never blamed me for taking her husband.”

Both of Yoeun’s marriage ceremonies have been far from conventional. He was married to Ty in the late ’70s with 16 other couples under the Khmer Rouge regime.

Pigs were slaughtered for a communal meal. It was a forced marriage a crime that Yoeun and Ty are glad was addressed at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal last year. Despite the circumstances, the pair quickly grew to love each other.

But when he met Chhuon, Yoeun did not want to divorce Ty. He loved them both, he explains. In a small ceremony with close relatives, Chhuon and Yoeun prayed to their ancestors. From this moment on, they were husband and wife.

For Yoeun, now 66, taking a second wife rather than keeping a mistress was also taking the moral high ground.

“We did this to tell our ancestors in the traditional way. If we did not, the ancestor spirits may be angry. They may curse us or our relatives,” Yoeun says.

Yoeun and Chhuon know their relationship has not been embraced by all their fellow villagers.

“Some villagers are not happy with me and they criticise; but they do not say it directly, just behind my back,” Yoeun says, his eyes downcast.

While the trio all stress they live simply and harmoniously, there are small fissures visible in their mannerisms. Ty, the first wife, maintains she was never angry or jealous, but her husband and Chhuon felt the ripples of her distress. It took a few years for things to be “normal”.

Chhuon confided that she often feels lonely and sad; Yoeun sometimes visits her, but he lives full-time with Ty.

“Sometimes when I am sick, there is no one to take care of me, because my children are away … but the first wife is also sick,” Chhuon says, suppressing a cough.

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Vorng Lem, the first wife of Som Phar, in front of the house she and her busband built as newlyweds. Eliah Lillis

On the rocks
Not all relationships involving multiple wives are as civil, and many are socially condemned. Nor are second marriages always driven by love on the part of men; in a nasty sexual assault case last year, the alleged rapist offered to marry his victim as his “second wife” as a form of compensation.

“Second wives” who are willing to share aspects of their personal lives including photos of their husband and children on social media will be routinely labelled “whores”.

Last month, Pheng Sreyla, a handicrafts worker from Kampong Speu, was doused in battery acid in an attack allegedly masterminded by her lover’s wife.

Sreyla said she would have been content to be his second wife, but the cruelty of the attack – which targeted her face in an attempt to disfigure her for the perceived infidelity – had since changed her mind.

“I want to get married, because I am pregnant with his child. They attacked me and did not have pity on me,” she says.

She regained her eyesight after the assault, but she still fears the first wife who remains at large and her relatives.

“They threatened to shoot me dead if I appear in public,” she says. Second marriages are technically illegal, according to the current Marriage Law, which was signed in 1989.

Article 6 states that “a marriage shall be prohibited” to “a person who was bound by prior marriage which is not yet dissolved”.

That same law, however, has multiple elements that are routinely ignored. It prohibits marriage between same-sex couples (though gay marriage does occur, at the commune chief’s discretion), and forbids a person who is impotent, or has leprosy, cancer, tuberculosis or a mental defect from marrying.

Cham researcher Farina So points out that while polygamy is permissible under Islam and Sharia law, “it is rarely practised in [the] Cambodian Muslim community”.

“While Khmer culture doesn’t encourage polygamy, in reality, people practise it,” she adds.

Ringed in
Picking at the soil under her fingernails with a hairpin, Takeo woman Vorng Lem, 47, recalls how her private life was splashed across television channels in December, with news outlets sensationally reporting her husband Som Phar’s extramarital affairs.

The story broke after his second wife demanded compensation from police when she discovered he had a third “wife” – a mistress he lived with, but without a marriage certificate.

Lem’s son-in-law, who asked not to be named, said he had no idea until he walked into a coffeeshop and saw exaggerated reports claiming Phar had six wives.

“My wife [Lem’s daughter] was worried and very ashamed,” he says. “She didn’t go out because she was afraid people would ask her about it.”

Lem, however, has perfected a tone of nonchalance after several years of her husband’s philandering.

The marriage was arranged by her parents, but when Phar took a second wife in Kratie – made official at the commune level despite his married status – Lem was left scrambling to make ends meet.

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Uon Yoeun (left) with his first wife, May Ty, at their home in Kandal province. Eliah Lillis

Rocking her sleeping grandson in a hammock and smiling at Phar’s mother – her mother-in-law who lives with her – Lem remembers meeting her husband’s second wife for the first time. Lem was throwing a party for her daughter’s graduation; Phar had invited his second wife to stay the night.

“The second wife is not friendly to me, but I consider her a guest, and the house owner must be kind to guests,” Lem says. The two women slept under the same roof that night, while their husband slept in an adjoining house. Lem was silently seething.

“I just felt angry. It’s a thing that is unspeakable,” she says, her voice gaining gravity as she speaks. “I feel I never care about my husband anymore, just the children.”

She wanted a divorce, which he refused. Lem was daunted by the perception of a drawn-out and costly court case, so she remains married to him.

She also met Phar’s third “wife” when the pair came to visit her in the hospital after an operation last year. It’s a complicated relationship; Lem says she still loves him, but would prefer to be divorced.

Phar, 52, a bus driver, was frank about his motives for entering into multiple marriages. “At first, I just loved them for fun, but later on, I could not get away because they cling to me. They are greedy and want me to live with them and help and support them,” he says.

“[My second wife and I] made the marriage certificate because I wanted to live with her for the rest of my life, but we didn’t have even one child. She could not get along with my family, and was not kind to my daughter. She always triggered a problem.”

Phar’s second wife was unable to be reached for this story, but his third, Ki Sreymom, who is in her 30s, says even though she knew of his existing relationships, Phar was kind to her.

“It is normal for a man who will accept when a woman gives him [sex]. Many women love him. If he still has a relationship with the second wife, it will be a big problem,” she says.

“I still love him, because he always gives me money, and I manage and share it with his first wife. He knows I’m kind to her.”

Although she wished to legally marry Phar, Sreymom did not know if it was possible.

“I [would] never force him to make [a marriage certificate] with me because he has a wife already,” she says.

“I give him freedom to make a decision. I want to live with a true love.”

Marriage breakdown
Katherine Brickell, co-editor of The Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia and a prolific researcher of domestic life in the Kingdom, said second wives were a trend she had come across regularly in her work.

“It’s connected with the fact that there are multiple types of marriage in Cambodia – legal and customary. So it’s possible for a man to be married to multiple women despite it being technically illegal,” she says.

While a formal marriage is registered with the commune office and usually has a fee attached, the customary, informal ones often seek commune permission but are not registered. While not legally viable, these marriages are based on community recognition and are recorded in family books. They are common, she says, especially in rural areas.

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Vorng Lem holds a copy of her marriage certificate. Eliah Lillis

In her 2015 paper Everyday politics of (In)formal Marital Dissolution in Cambodia and Indonesia, Brickell found that when men pursued other relationships, it had a detrimental impact on their first wives left behind.

The study found “‘mobile husbandry’ was far from unique in the commune, with customary marriage affording men greater flexibility in their marital choices”.

“Yet for women, feelings of incapacitation and subjugation were directly borne out of their inability to move beyond the protracted marriages their husbands had created through their bouts of polygyny-induced mobility,” she says, using a word for the practice of men having multiple wives.

While women understood the illegality of multiple marriages, they were often helpless to claim their rights under the legal system. Another woman interviewed by Brickell tearfully told of how her husband left her in crippling debt.

“As a result, the mother of six has been forced to sell one child to a childless Cambodian couple for $20 and send her eldest son to an orphanage,” Brickell writes.

Gender expert Kasumi Nakagawa says the term “wife” is used liberally in Cambodia and often applied to mistresses who live with their lover, but adds that polygamy was permissible under the French civil code in Cambodia prior to the war.

She said without a uniform registration system in Cambodia, it was possible to engage in polygamy by getting married in different locations, as in Phar’s case.

Indeed, Yiv Nearadey, a commune chief in Kratie province, where Phar married his second wife, stressed officials needed to be cautious when authenticating a marriage with a certificate.

“We need to do it carefully before making it,” she says.

Nakagawa says the “double standard” for men and women causes tension and leads some women to remain in unwanted marriages.

“There is a culture to accept men’s sexual entitlement in Cambodia, while women are oppressed in their sexuality,” she says. “For a woman [in Cambodia], she can have only one husband in her life. Thus, in case her husband has another girlfriend, it threatens her financial security, not only her emotional wellbeing, and [could cause] potential damage to her and her parents’ reputation.”

Ros Sopheap, of Gender and Development for Cambodia, agrees with Nakagawa that there’s an expectation for women to swallow their husband’s behaviour with a smile; they are supposed to be honest, take care of the children and in-laws, and not take a lover for themselves.

She sees the practice of men having wives without the inverse option being open to women as a form of gender inequality.

“Women do not want their husband to have another wife or any affairs while he is married,” she says. “Women feel that ‘a husband’ is equal to the ‘heart’ … So, people can’t live without their heart.”

She added while women could seek divorce through the courts, it could be difficult for them to navigate, especially if authorities sided with her husband. That was the case for Lem. She contemplates her situation as she stands, dressed in coral and turquoise florals, and surveys her fields.

The earth she ploughed, and the “men’s work” she did in place of her husband, have imprinted her with a fierce independence.

She remembers her wedding was a “very special day”, full of music, but it has left a bitter aftertaste.

“There is no justice for the woman. It’s painful; society looks down on the woman and calls her stupid,” she says. “Men do whatever they want, but the women cannot.”

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