D OMESTIC violence in Cambodia gets its first public airing this month at two major conferences, while the true extent of it has been graphically brought out by the country's first surveys on the subject.
A national conference on family violence held in Phnom Penh on Dec 14 is being followed by a three-day regional one ending on Dec 17.
Representatives of 16 countries - including Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - aim to produce a regional plan of action at the second conference.
Long a silent story, domestic violence has been highlighted by two studies presented at the conferences indicating it is prevalent thoughout Cambodia.
Precise figures, though, are hard to come by.
One study, carried out in 10 Kandal province villages by 15 Khmer women's and human rights groups under the Human Rights Task Force, found local officials quoting wildly different statistics when asked what percentage of homes was affected by domestic violence.
"They were talking only about serious violence, which resulted in the death, disability or hospitalization of women. The actual figures are definitely higher than people think," says Im Phalay of the Task Force.
The most exhaustive study done, a six-month survey of 53 women from twenty villages in Prey Veng, Kompong Chhnang, Takeo and Phnom Penh, sponsored by The Asia Foundation, does not guess on the subject.
"Ours was a qualitative study, not a statistical one," says Cathy Zimmerman, the project head. "We simply do not know what percentage of homes are affected."
But Zimmerman and co-workers Men Savorn and Sar Samen - who talked to women, judges, police officers, NGO staff, medical workers and local and central authorities - believe there are extremely high levels of violence.
While nine of 50 women respondents claimed to have been beaten daily, 21 said they were beaten often, from once a month to thrice a week.
The report calls the level of abuse in general "breathtaking", ranging from punches, kicks and the destruction of family property to using whips, knives, farm tools, poles, guns and grenades.
Injuries range from bruises, burns, sprained limbs and unconsciousness to permanent disabilities like scars, deformed limbs, lost teeth and deafness.
Both studies quoted poverty, gambling, alcohol, family squabbles, unemployment and lack of education as contributing factors. But Zimmerman says they are causes not excuses.
The real reason is that Khmer culture says that "husbands are the kings of the home," and that "domestic violence is an internal family matter," according to Phalay.
Both studies found that police and court officials thought only 'serious' violence was a crime: i.e. if the woman is bleeding, unconscious, shot, stabbed or dead.
The studies debunk the myth that men who beat their wives are 'naturally' more violent than normal. "Only four of 50 respondents had husbands who were involved in violent incidents outside the family," Zimmerman points out. "These men are not naturally more violent, they beat their wives because it is safe."
The other myth is that women are economically dependent on their husbands. Both studies point out that women are the main breadwinners in most lower-income families.
Says Phalay: "Women earn money for their families, but the money men earn is mostly used for gambling or drinking. Sometimes men take away family money for their own vices."
Adds Zimmerman: "Most of these women are not economically dependent."
The main reason women give for staying in an abusive relationship is "for the sake of the children", even when children themselves were being abused.
Zimmerman's study found that in 24 of 46 cases, the children of women-beaters were also battered.
Other compelling reasons for staying included fear of social ostracism, the stigma of being a "divorced" woman, and fear of losing custody of the children.
Zimmerman's study found that beatings did not cease during pregnancy - 31 of 46 respondents said they were abused when pregnant, while five had suffered miscarriage as a direct result of violence.
Women are also subjected to forced sexual intercourse, which half of all respondents complained of. The women are also at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, as several reported that their husbands see prostitutes.
The Task Force study also found a correlation between domestic violence and bigamy. "Many of the women we talked to reported that their husbands had other wives, who were also usually being beaten," says Alex Marcellino of the Task Force.
The existing social and legal framework make a divorce or separation almost impossible. It is socially unacceptable for women to seek a separation, and all women reported being counseled reconciliation by relatives and neighbors.
While 36 of 50 respondents in Zimmerman's study reported asking for a divorce at some point, most were put off by the cost, time and risk of taking the matter further.
Under Article 42 (1) of the current family law, a woman is entitled to file for divorce with the local commune or section office or directly in a provincial or municipal court. But all women were unaware of the latter provision and went first to commune authorities.
The law requires that commune/section authorities should reconcile the couple within 15 days, or send the case to court. But Zimmerman's report found that unauthorized persons, including police and even officials of the national Secretariat for Women's Affairs, tried to "reconcile" couples.
No one was aware of the 15-day time limit, and the common myth was that authorities at each stage were to try reconciliation three times. This meant endless trips to offices for women, wasting precious work hours and money, not to mention increased risk of battering at home for seeking separation.
But there is an exception made in Article 43, where reconciliation should not be tried in "very serious circumstances." While domestic violence should qualify as serious, not even the judges interviewed knew of the exception.