A day after Prime Minister Hun Sen pointed out the need for more effective child protection in Cambodia, police in Koh Kong arrested and released a woman who admitted to chaining her 4-year-old “adopted daughter” inside their house eight hours a day for the past two years.
Authorities and rights workers placed the girl in a Ministry of Social Affairs-approved shelter on Friday evening, after following up on a complaint lodged by a fellow resident of the house in Kemarak Pumin town’s Smach Meanchey commune, which shelters as many as 60 farmers.
Police and rights group Adhoc found the small girl sitting on the floor with a chain padlocked around her ankle, securing her to a building post. She told police that once, desperately thirsty, she drank her own urine.
“We think that the mother is so poor that she did not have any way of looking after the girl,” said Srey Touch, head of the Koh Kong police’s human rights and juvenile protection unit. “The [adoptive] mother said the girl used to get in rainwater and get messy; she feared her daughter may leave the house and drown or get lost.”
The girl moved in with the suspect as collateral for a loan the girl’s biological mother borrowed from the woman about two years ago, she told police.
The suspect, who worked as a farmer at a plantation a kilometre or so from the house, chained the toddler each workday from 7am to 11am and then from 1pm to 5pm, she told police.
“I felt so much pity for [the victim]; it is so bad. I think that all children have the right to be cared for, not chained up like a dog,” said Keo Chhon, 60, who recently moved into the house and filed a complaint about the girl’s situation to Adhoc. “I wonder why the other workers didn’t report it, but for me, I had to report it.”
Child abuse is common among Cambodia’s poor, and typically goes unreported, said Chhan Sokunthea, head of the women and children’s rights section at Adhoc.
Adults caring for children are typically unaware of laws protecting their wards, as are neighbours and family members who witness the abuse, Sokunthea said. As a result, children of poor parents are more often the subject of beatings and other abuse, and there can be even fewer repercussions for abusive adults compared with their middle- or upper-class counterparts.
“I myself think it’s unfair, because in Cambodia 75 to 80 per cent are uneducated and they don’t know how to care for their kids,” Sokunthea said. “Rarely is there a case where the neighbour or relative make a complaint.”
The case comes after multiple high-profile instances of child abuse to which police have recently responded.
A Phnom Penh municipal investigating judge last week accused a Meanchey district couple of human trafficking and intentional violence for allegedly severely beating two sisters – ages 7 and 14 – who were living and working in the couple’s home as maids. Their father worked for the family’s construction company.
When Hun Sen called for greater juvenile protection efforts on Thursday, he referenced the case of a 9-year-old pagoda boy allegedly brutalised for months by a monk in the capital.
“Children have special rights,” Sokunthea said. “It’s not fair for parents or a step-parent or relatives to be violent with them.”
Police removed the 4-year-old from the house on Friday and questioned the suspect at the provincial police station. They let the woman go after she signed a contract promising not to repeat her crime, Touch of the Koh Kong police said.
Bon Pel, a deputy in Koh Kong’s Social Affairs department, said the suspect showed no signs of mental illness, and said she loved the girl but had no one to look after her when she went to work.
When informed of the woman’s arrest, her years of chaining the girl to a post and the 4-year-old’s move to a children’s shelter, the girl’s biological mother, who lives in Preah Vihear province, said she could not take back and care for her daughter, Pel said. But the girl will not be sent back to live with the suspect, he added.
“I told the adoptive mother that it is illegal to chain a child up alone in a house. She could have brought the daughter with her to work at the plantation or sent her to a neighbour’s to look after her for a while, but [chaining the girl inside the house] is damaging to children’s mental health,” Pel said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEAN TEEHAN