PARLIAMENTARIANS voted unanimously Wednesday to approve articles of the Kingdom’s draft Penal Code that would criminalise negligence and abuse of children, breaking from several days of heated partisan debate over other aspects of the proposed legislation.
Articles 337 and 338 in Chapter 5 of the new code state that parents or guardians who damage the health of their children aged under 15 years could face prison sentences of two to five years and fines of 4 million to 10 million riels (US$958 to $2,395).
In more serious cases, when juveniles die of starvation or other causes, prison sentences may stretch to 15 years.
Hy Sophea, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice who addressed the National Assembly on the Penal Code on behalf of the government, explained that the penalty for death due to starvation will only apply in the case of parents who have the ability to provide for their children but do not.
“If a person is simply too poor to provide for their children, that is not a violation of the law,” he said.
Cheam Yeap, a lawmaker from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said that an important aspect of implementing the new Penal Code will be educating Cambodian citizens about the new provisions relating to child abuse and other offenses.
“Cambodia is still a developing country, but raising awareness about the criminal code needs to be a high priority for government institutions, parliamentarians and civil-society groups,” he said.
Mu Sochua, a lawmaker from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said that she supported the articles passed Wednesday because they will bolster the rights of vulnerable children, though she added that dire levels of poverty remain a threat to child welfare in Cambodia.
“We are happy to pass a law that pressures parents to take responsibility for their children, but children in Cambodia still face many other problems,” she said.
“Many are victims of child labour, trafficking, exploitation and poverty, and we estimate that 50 percent of juveniles quit school before they reach grade nine.”
Samleang Seila, the executive director of Action Pour Les Enfants, a child-rights group, said that he had not yet seen the newly passed articles, but he said that he worried about the lack of protections for civil-society groups who work on behalf of abused children.
“So far, there has not been any law that has authorised shelters and legal guardians to represent children,” he said, noting that shelters currently have no power to keep abused children when families ask for their return.
Thun Saray, president of the local rights group Adhoc, was more optimistic about the newly approved articles, though he emphasised the need for local authorities to follow through on the law’s provisions.
“I think it’s a good idea to imprison people who abuse young children, but we remain concerned about the ability of law enforcement to enforce these provisions,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE