Last Women's Day, the Post told the story of Moeng Kei, a woman who, despite being
awarded custody of her children and house in a divorce case, had been waiting 14
months for authorities to enforce the settlement. This year Beth Moorthy and
Pok Sokundara followed up on the tale.
ONE year ago, Moeng Kei was living in a shelter, had not seen one of her children
in a year, and was unable to move into her house.
"I cried almost every night, I thought my husband had cheated me," she
said of that time. "It seemed hopeless."
Today, however, she sits smiling in the house, which, although spartan, is all hers.
And she can reach out and ruffle the hair of the son she thought she had lost forever.
She had to toss her ex-husband in jail to do it, but Kei has finally managed to claim
what she deserved.
"I never thought I would be back in this house again," she said. "I
feel like a dead body which has come back to life."
In January 1996, Kei filed for divorce from her husband Touch Houn, and the case
went to court in November. Kei told the judge how her husband beat her and mistreated
the children. In Jan 1997, the court granted her requests: sole custody of the three
boys, the house, and $100 per month alimony.
But that was not the end of the story.
Houn had kidnapped one of the children and installed relatives in the house. It took
almost a year for Kei and representatives from the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center
(CWCC) and the Project Against Domestic Violence to get court and local authorities
to go to the house and try to claim it back. However, they were met by a carload
of armed men and beat a hasty retreat. That was December 1997.
Little else happened until August 1998, when, following tenacious pressure on the
municipal court by CWCC, the court issued a summons against Houn for ignoring the
divorce decision. Even after that, however, Houn failed to live up to his obligations,
instead offering a cash settlement of $1500. The prosecutor urged her to take it,
Kei said, but she said no.
"I said even $5000 was not acceptable - only the house and the land so I can
support myself and my kids. I feel he tried to cheat me; it seems they think I am
a very dull lady."
But Kei is far from dull. She steadfastly refused anything short of the terms of
the settlement - and when her husband was not forthcoming, she had him arrested.
"Just before he was arrested, I called him and asked, 'do you agree to give
me the house or not, this is the last chance for you,'" she recounted.
"He said, 'I know, I have read the court notice. But I won't give it to you.
I would rather be imprisoned because you make trouble for me all the time.'
"I said, 'What trouble? If you give me the house, everything will be okay.'"
Houn was arrested on Dec 16, 1998, after almost two years of ignoring the divorce
verdict. In prison, he signed a statement that he would follow the court order, and
was released Dec 20.
"I was very happy when he was arrested because I knew I would receive the house,"
Kei said gleefully. "Court officials told me that they have been working for
20 years but have never found any lady who ordered the court to arrest her husband
Houn agreed that the case was unusual: "When the police took me to court, they
laughed, they said they had never seen a case like me before," he remembered.
"The prison guards, they laughed too."
Houn claimed he could not return the house because he did not have enough money to
buy his house back from relatives; colleagues finally lent him the money so he could
get out of prison.
Houn, who has denied mistreating Kei during their marriage, said: "I am very,
very unhappy because I cannot have my children... I just want to help them."
On Dec 22, Kei was back in her house, with her son.
"This was unimaginable," Kei said of her eventual happy ending. "I
did not give a single riel to the court, but the court was strictly followed up by
the CWCC... I am very grateful. Even a parent wouldn't help their children like CWCC
But Minister of Women's Affairs Mu Sochua cautioned that Kei's story is still far
happier than that of most women.
"It's extremely unusual for this to happen," she said. "Any woman
going through a divorce is brave... what nearly always happens in these cases is
that everyone in the community puts pressure on the woman to compromise" - that
is, to take back an abusive or deadbeat husband.
"It usually only works if the woman is immensely strong, she has the means to
pay, or she has immensely strong evidence."
Meanwhile, Kei's children are in school, and she hopes to find a job when they are
a bit older.
Houn has been visiting the children regularly, but doesn't speak to Kei.
"I always insult him, scold him, but he just says nothing," she said. "Today
he took one of our sons out for a walk - if he takes him forever, I'll get the authorities."