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In Cambodia’s courts, it’s a man’s world – with the effects felt by female employees and victims alike

The facade of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Licadho
The facade of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Licadho

In Cambodia’s courts, it’s a man’s world – with the effects felt by female employees and victims alike

The number of women in the Cambodian judicial system remains stubbornly low, new statistics compiled by the Cambodian National Council for Women show, with the detrimental effects of that imbalance felt throughout the court system.

According to statistics published earlier this month, just 14 percent of judges in the country are women, and that proportion has barely improved over time. In fact, in 2017 there was just one more female judge than the 37 in the entire country in 2013, and actually two fewer than in 2016.

The higher up the court system one goes, the more skewed the imbalance, with just two women out of 29 Appeal Court judges, and three out of 22 in the Supreme Court, according to the Cambodian Bar Association.

Overall female representation among prosecutors is even lower, with just 23 in the country, making up 12 percent of the total – a 2 percent increase since 2013.

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The imbalance goes beyond simply being an undesirable image for the Cambodian government, which has long vowed to increase female representation in its ranks. In interviews with The Post, women’s rights activists, lawyers and victims say it has created a host of problems, with female lawyers and prosecutors often not being taken seriously by judges, and female victims of abuse or sexual violence re-traumatised, or blamed, by insensitive courts.

Seng Reasey, from women’s rights organisation Silaka, has seen how this lack of representation impacts court cases involving abuse. She cites a case in which a 5-year-old was allegedly raped by her neighbour.

“The court asked again and again . . . to recount the whole story. At some point the little girl just can’t answer all the questions and instead hides behind her grandmother,” she said. “But they bring her another nightmare by asking her again, and again.”

In the end, the grandmother dropped the case, not wanting the young girl to have to keep reliving the experience.

“Her granddaughter was traumatised. [She] followed her everywhere in the house, and just stayed inside and wouldn’t go outside anymore,” she said.

This was not a one-off example, she said, with female victims of male violence often being re-traumatised by the judicial process.

In some cases, instances of abuse are treated lightly, she said, with a husband seen as having the right to use violence against his wife. “If a woman goes to an authority to complain [about domestic violence], they ask, ‘What did you do wrong, why did they hit you?’ If she says she cooked too late, for example, because she was busy looking after the children, the local authority just says, ‘You’re bad, you’re not a good housewife,’” she said.

Thida Khus, executive director of Silaka, said this also applied in a broader context. She said women are often blamed – even by judges – of being responsible for having been assaulted. “They say, ‘You wear shorts, you went to an isolated place, you dressed up willingly.’ Basically, ‘You asked for it,’” she said.

Even in cases where sexual violence or domestic abuse are not at play, the gender dynamic poses challenges, especially for female lawyers. Just one in five lawyers in 2017 was a woman, meaning they constantly have to prove themselves.

Lawyer Yim Thavy said that prosecutors and judges sometimes “don’t respect and value” female lawyers, and often don’t take cases of abuse seriously, resulting in lengthy lawsuits. This happens despite court staff receiving training on gender issues, she said.

One domestic violence victim who requested anonymity said she had filed a complaint for divorce on the grounds that her husband was physically and emotionally abusive.

“When I met the court people they kept saying that we may move back together soon so there is no need to ask for a divorce, and they didn’t take it seriously,” she said.

“As most of the domestic violence comes from men, those men who work on the case often favour men instead of women.”

Advocates said that courts’ inability, or unwillingness, to promptly pursue cases puts a unique burden on women. Not only are women under the intense stress associated with pursuing legal proceedings against their abusers, they are also often left in the position of having continued contact with their abuser, putting them at risk of revictimisation.

While the advocates mostly referred to domestic violence, a similar dynamic can also play out in other types of cases.

A victim who returned home in December 2016 after being trafficked to China as a bride recounted a similar story. She was interviewed by a prosecutor about two or three months after returning, but hadn’t heard back since then.

“I have not heard anything after the first questioning, and the suspect is still free outside, spreading rumours in the village that I can’t win against him,” she said. “I don’t have any hope to get justice.”

Lawyer Ou Helene said one barrier for more women entering her field is an expectation that they will give up the profession once they are married. “I can work [as a lawyer] because actually I’m single, so I can achieve my dreams. But normally once a woman gets married, the husband and children can bring her down,” she said.

She said she didn’t trust in men simply giving up positions or granting more positions to women to achieve more balance. “Of course, I want more women in high positions . . . We have to fight for it ourselves. At least we have to have a voice,” she said.

Helene added that not only was sexism an issue in the judiciary, corruption and an overloaded docket of cases often lead to what she feels are unjust verdicts, she said. This, she added, was why she no longer goes to court, and instead mostly works on cases settled outside.

“Cambodia is not a paradise of justice,” she said.

Silaka’s Khus, meanwhile, expressed pessimism that things would change for the better anytime soon.

“Nothing has changed since my early days,” she said.

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