The fatal shooting of a singer by her estranged husband on Monday has renewed calls among advocates for the government to take a stronger stance on violence against women, with critics charging that law enforcement remains uncommitted to protecting women despite years of commonplace assaults.
The unusually public murder-suicide of San Sreylai, a finalist on The Voice Cambodia, demonstrates that simply having laws on the books isn’t enough, according to Phnom Penh-based gender researcher Theresa de Langis.
“What’s worked in other countries is good laws on the books, and that has to be enforced,” de Langis said. “We don’t see the kind of consistency [of enforcement] that’s going to be effective in Cambodia.”
Sreylai, 23, was fatally shot on Monday afternoon in an upscale neighbourhood of Phnom Penh by her estranged husband, 53-year-old customs official Chey Rin. It remained unclear how Rin got the revolver used to shoot Sreylai, and Phnom Penh police did not respond to multiple requests for comment yesterday.
In interviews, Sreylai’s family and friends described Rin as a physically abusive and controlling partner, and said Sreylai had been trying to leave the relationship for some time. In an interview with TV FB yesterday, Cambodian singer Pich Sophea said Sreylai described being frequently beaten by Rin.
“She told me that she can’t continue like that with her relationship,” Sophea said.
According to those close to Sreylai, Rin had become increasingly upset after the singer joined The Voice.
According to de Langis, women are already underrepresented in the public sphere, and the unusually high-profile nature of the incident only “gives grounds for parents or other family members to curtail the activities of women”.
“Women themselves may be afraid to take up public space and take up public power,” de Langis said. “When something like this happens, it can serve as a deterrent.”
Kasumi Nakagawa, a professor of gender studies at Pannasatra University, also called on law enforcement officials to treat domestic violence laws and gun control more seriously.
According to Nakagawa, abusive relationships are often part of a cycle of violence starting with controlling behaviour and escalating to physical violence.
However, in a Cambodian context, “many women cannot report the crime that they suffered due to social stigma or shame or family pressure to keep silent”, she said.
“If the victim knew that there were several ways to keep him away, such as asking the court to issue a protection order, this horrific incident might have been avoided,” she added.
A 2013 UN report on violence against women in Southeast Asia found that one in four Cambodian women reported experiencing least one incidence of physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partner. Among men, more than one in four reported prohibiting their partner from working at least once in their life, and one in five reported raping a woman.
Even so, Janet Wong, the Cambodia representative for UN Women, said it is likely that all forms of violence against women are underreported.
“Cambodia has made progress in developing services to respond to violence against women and there are laws and policies in place,” Wong said in an email. “However, implementation remains a challenge, especially when it comes to accessing justice.”
According to de Langis, the researcher, survivors of domestic violence need better access to justice beyond local commune councils, where many disputes are often mediated.
There, “the aim is usually to re-establish harmony in the family”, she said, rather than to provide justice for victims. “It makes women be silent about their abuse.”
Several officials at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs declined to comment yesterday, including spokesman Phon Puthborey, Gender Equality Department Director Nhean Sochetra and Legal Protection Department Deputy Chief Sar Sineth.
Meanwhile, Kirt Chantharith, spokesman for the National Police, said investigators are still checking whether the gun was legally registered with the Ministry of Interior or Customs Department.
“We don’t deny that there are challenges in gun control,” Chantharith said.