Victims of domestic violence in Cambodia have little option but to remain in abusive situations due to social stigma and the failures of the justice system, according to a report from Licadho that covers more than 200 cases investigated by the human rights group over the past two years.
The report, released on Saturday, finds that more than 40 percent of victims encountered by Licadho returned to their violent partners, and just one in five brought criminal charges against their abusers.
Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s deputy director of advocacy, said the figures show that large swaths of society still do not recognise domestic violence as a crime.
“Families, communities, law enforcement, court officials and even victims themselves still think it’s a shameful family affair and often blame the victims for provoking the violence,” Pilorge said. “By writing about it, we are hoping all sectors of society will acknowledge it’s a crime.”
Women’s rights activists backed up the material in the report, which concluded that religious beliefs, lack of faith in the courts and shame all contribute to women’s reluctance to pursue justice.
Often, it is family members who advise women to stay in abusive relationships in order to preserve familial and community harmony. Other women see their abuse as a manifestation of bad karma from wrongdoing in their previous lives in keeping with a Buddhist worldview, according to the report.
“Some women stay quiet,” said Chhan Sokunthea, who oversees the women’s and children’s rights section of Adhoc. “Some complain to the local authorities, but the local authorities think domestic violence is a family issue.”
For cases that do make it to criminal court, sentencing is mixed, with many abusers given punishments below the legal minimum, the report found.
In one case, a man who doused his wife in gasoline and burnt her to death received just four years in prison. In another, a man beat his wife’s mother to death, only to have his charges reduced at trial, then to have 16 months of his two-year sentence suspended.
In the most severe domestic violence cases involving death or serious injury, it is also common for the abuser to simply run away, Sokunthea said. “It’s a big problem. It’s very hard for the victim to get justice, especially in serious cases.”
The study also found that in two-thirds of cases in which women returned to their abusers, authorities were involved in encouraging them stay, often through an informal reconciliation processes.
Prok Vanny, a women’s rights activist, said women have more access to resources and legal aid than ever but still face an uphill battle in the legal system, where most police and judges are men.
“Many men are surprised” when a woman pursues charges, Vanny said. “They think it’s bad. But for myself, I think women are changing from silence to speaking.”
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs could not be reached yesterday.
Among other things, Licadho recommends the government fund a network of domestic violence shelters, establish a legal assistance fund for victims, amend the domestic violence law to discourage informal reconciliation proceedings and train police and judges on the use of restraining orders.
To those who know a victim of domestic violence, Pilorge encouraged them to listen and protect them.
“To be believed and acknowledged are the first steps for many victims to gain confidence in pursuing justice and to start healing,” she said.