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Cambodia’s cycle of abuse

A student looks out the window at a school for underprivileged children in Siem Reap where minors were believed to have been sexually assaulted. Greg Nickels
A student looks out the window at a school for underprivileged children in Siem Reap where minors were believed to have been sexually assaulted. Greg Nickels

Cambodia’s cycle of abuse

Childhood trauma remains stubbornly high in Cambodia, leading to perpetration and experience of violence against women, which in turn leads to further maltreatment of children, completing a cycle of abuse, a new UN-supported study suggests.

The study – supported by UN Women in Cambodia and set to be published in the medical journal the Lancet next month – found that more than four in five Cambodian men and women have experienced some form of childhood trauma, which includes emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

For men, childhood trauma was found to be linked to violence against their partners later in life, including physical, sexual or emotional violence. Similarly, among women, researchers found an association between experiencing childhood trauma and experiencing violence by their partners in adulthood.

The study also found that men who commit violence against women are more likely to beat their children, which, in turn, increases the likelihood women will also use corporal punishment, defined by the study as “smacking” their children. Three-quarters of Cambodian families use corporal punishment, the study found.

Sotheara Chhim, executive director of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation, said he agreed with the study’s findings, noting that Cambodians’ parenting style often tends to involve frightening children.

He also agreed with the assertion that “victims of intimate partner violence tend to re-enact their childhood traumatic experience towards others, especially to their children when they become parents”, linking the tendency to a “need for justice, repatriation and security” that often goes unaddressed.

In the Cambodian context, Chhim noted that there is a lack of awareness that violence against women could be transferred to children, and pointed to the fact that domestic violence often goes unreported.

Ke Sovannaroth, head of the National Assembly’s Commission on Health, Labour and Women’s Affairs, suggested that education and supporting locals’ livelihoods were key to resolving problems of domestic violence.

“Some abusers have excuses and do not undergo punishment because of poverty. So, poverty affects the family, which also affects the children,” she said.

Sovannary Ty, country child protection specialist for Plan International, added that another issue is that Cambodia “lack[s] social workers . . . to provide psychosocial counselling”.

However, as Sovannaroth pointed out, counselling alone is not enough. She noted that there are commune-level women’s committees to support families experiencing violence, but with little success.

“Just counselling women when they are in conflict cannot reduce the violence when their children do not get enough food the next morning . . . We have to tackle the root problem,” she said.

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