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Stepping out of the shadows: one woman's victory over violence

Stepping out of the shadows: one woman's victory over violence


A campaign last week sought to transform public attitudes to domestic violence, inspiring Maly, a Battambang resident who escaped an abusive marriage, to tell her tragic story



Maly sobs as she remembers her abusive marriage, from which she eventually escaped.

The anti-domestic violence campaign in battambang

Volunteers at Boeung Chhouk market caused a stir among the hordes of motodops and early morning shoppers, many of whom sought out the volunteers to request information and a white ribbon. Many women in the crowd said they hoped the leaflet would change things – with places to call for help and advice about how to control your anger – and many men were willing to talk openly about why domestic violence may occur. Yun Savong, 42, a motodriver, said he thought the campaign was a brave way to tackle the problem. “Domestic violence occurs because people are poorly educated, illiterate, drunk and they don’t think about the impact to their family and society. I hope this campaign will wake people up.” Later that night by the river, more than one hundred volunteers walked the streets campaigning as a local youth theatre group performed skits about domestic violence. As darkness fell, a candlelight vigil was held for the victims of domestic violence and dozens of people, including 69 monks, sat on the grass to watch the spectacle, sending a strong message to perpetrators that violence against women is not acceptable.

When Maly was 17, she was married to a man she didn't love.

Having lost her parents to the Khmer Rouge, Maly was married off by her aunt and grandmother, who were afraid she would become pregnant if she followed her dreams and went to the city to study nursing.

To avoid this shame, they paired her up against her will, and threatened to cut her off if she did not agree to their demands. Her husband was also forced into marriage, his parents believing Maly had "good heritage", or good blood.

"My husband was in the military, and he was not a good man. He was very handsome and many women wanted him. I was not beautiful, and when we walked down the street together, men would shout out to him: ‘Your wife is so ugly! Why do you have such an ugly wife when you are a handsome man?' People said that we were not equals."

Shortly after Maly's first child was born, her husband began beating her. Rapes also became commonplace. The abuse happened mostly when her husband had been drinking, but he would also fly into rages if Maly could not provide him with money or food.

Maly thinks the wine provoked these attacks, as well as her husband's low level of education. She says he didn't care about his family and he didn't care about the future.

"I would try to defend myself, but I was thin and weak from lack of food, and when he was raping me, he would slap me hard and make me faint. I begged him to stop but he would not."

Events came to a head one night in 1989 when Maly and her husband got into a fight over money. By this time Maly had endured ten years of marriage with her abusive husband and had borne him four children, all of whom were young and still in need of care. Money and food were scarce in the family, and life was a constant struggle.

"We were arguing about money, and he said I was a bad women and Pol Pot killed my mother because of me. I said you can insult me, you can hit me and hurt me, but don't you dare insult my mother. She was innocent. She didn't do anything wrong."

Maly's tears began to flow freely as she recalled the final beating that ended her marriage.

"I was bending over stirring the rice, and he came up behind me and hit me with a stick over my head. CRACK! I fell to the kitchen floor and was unconscious. When I awoke, I heard my youngest daughter's voice crying. She was just a small baby, and she was pressing herself against my body trying to get to my breast for milk. I couldn't open my eyes and I couldn't move my body. All I could do was talk to her ... I just kept saying, ‘I want to stay alive to see you but maybe not, maybe I will die now.'"

A quarter of women affected

According to a government report released in late November, violence against women is on the rise in Cambodia, with almost one-quarter of all women suffering abuse at some point in their lives.

I was bending over stirring the rice, and he came up behind me and hit me with a stick over my head. CRACK! I fell to the kitchen floor.

The report stated that the growing consumption of drugs and alcohol by men was fuelling the increase, but a culture of passivity among women was compounding the problem, with many refusing to report abuse.
In 2005, the government passed the Law on Domestic Violence and Prevention of Victims, but human rights group Licadho says it has failed to be widely enforced, due in large part to inadequate wording, which does not specify which authority is required to take action to protect victims.

Leu Somaly, deputy director of the Women's Affairs Department in Battambang, said this year there have been 320 reported cases of domestic violence, which is down slightly from last year.

"Most of our work in the women's department is going out into the provinces and directly talking to people about domestic violence. We can help victims by removing them from their homes, and we have a safehouse where we can take  them. We can also help them with divorce proceedings if they need it."

Maly managed to crawl to her neighbour's house, and they took her to hospital, where the doctor expected she would be permanently impaired from the injuries to her head and back. Today, she still has to take pills for her head injuries. Otherwise, she feels dizzy and sick.

Escaping abuse

Maly's children were cared for by her aunt while she spent two months recovering in hospital. When she was well enough to leave, she filed for divorce from her husband - on the grounds that he would kill her if she stayed - and moved her family to Battambang, where her one remaining brother lived. Her two other brothers had drowned earlier in the year while trying to flee as refugees to Australia.

From 1990 to 1993, Maly and her small family lived as peasants, first with her neighbours and then with her brother's family. But she says she was despised by anyone that took them in because her children were dirty, sick and ill-fed.

In 1993, Maly's life changed. She said she got a job cleaning the hotel rooms of UNTAC workers in Battambang and met a rich man who fell in love with her. She said he offered her a lot of money to sleep with him - US$2,000 - and she took the money.

"I didn't want to do it, but I thought it was the best way to care for my children. What I did is a great shame for Cambodian women, [but] I thought I was lucky to have this opportunity to care for my children."

She said the man was very kind to her and she fell deeply in love with him. And  for the first time in ten years,  she was happy. But his wife soon discovered the affair and her lover took flight.

"I would come home from work every day and ask my children, ‘Has he come to visit me?' And every day they would say to me, ‘No Mother, he never comes.'"

When recalling the memory, Maly's tears fall as fast as when recalling her abusive marriage, and it seems her lost love is the hardest pain of all to bear.

Breaking the cycle

Last week in Battambang, NGO groups, government ministries and individuals came together to campaign for an end to violence against women. Early on the Friday morning, over 70 volunteers took to the streets, brandishing white ribbons, information leaflets and a desire to talk.

Ali Avery, one of the coordinators of the event, said the purpose of the march was to raise awareness and instill a sense of personal responsibility among the community.

"I think one of our major aims was to get people to ask themselves, What can I do? We wanted to start a discussion on this topic, which is not often openly talked about. We also wanted some of our volunteers - young teachers and activists - to get training in organising large-scale events like this."


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