More than 1,000 divorce cases were filed last year. Experts say it marks a change from traditional ways of seeking separation out of court.
Thim Rachna*’s husband was a drunk. He was the breadwinner of the family; she didn’t have a regular job. But he went out every night and when he came home he beat her.
So she filed for a divorce.
In many countries, this would be unremarkable.
But in Cambodia, where legal separation has long been taboo and gender equality is still far off, it was a brave choice.
Last year about 70 per cent of divorce cases were filed by women, according to the Phnom Penh municipal court.
Among them were victims of domestic abuse like Rachna, who said that the stigma attached to divorce had subsided in recent years.
“People seem not to care anymore about wives divorcing their husbands. Those who don’t know us, they may look down on us, but if they know us they have only pity,” she said.
Aing Malty, chief of the court, said that the number of couples applying to the courts for divorces – rather than arranging an extralegal one with local officials or commune chiefs that denies the wounded party a legal settlement – is on the increase.
Part of the reason for the increase is that women, particularly those in the capital, are slightly better-educated and more financially independent than in previous years, he said.
“Previously, Cambodian people divorced following traditions without legal agreement, so there were fewer cases in court. But now, after promoting gender equality and encouraging people to apply for marriage certificates legally, we see that divorce cases are increasing,” said Malty.
Of 1,287 divorce cases in 2013, 70 per cent were filed by women, according to the former president of the court, Chiv Keng.
The causes cited range from incompatibility to infidelity and domestic violence.
“He was so mean, insulting me and making trouble when he got drunk,” Rachna, who is 30 years old and now lives with a new husband, recalled.
“When I ran to my mother’s house, he came to beg me to come back. But when I did he always became the same as before.”
Lim Mony, deputy chief of human rights organisation Adhoc said gender inequality frequently led to marital problems.
“The main problem is that they don’t respect each other or share equal power in the family,” he said. “Most of the violence comes from men to women and there are four types: physical, emotional, sexual and economic.”
Another factor frequently cited in the collapse of marriages in Cambodia is clashes within large families who often live together.
Hoeur Sethul, a professional counsellor and psychologist at Indigo International said: “In Cambodian society, we live as an extended family with the groom and bride’s family members. While we live in a large family, our relationships are vulnerable and lead to problems.”
And then there are the problems that riddle marriages all across the world.
“Some couples broke up because of jealousy, some couldn’t live with their parents-in-law, some owed bank loans that one party hid from another and some of them got divorces because of gambling,” said Du Vibol from law firm Asia Universal.
Meang Nary*, who recently divorced her husband, said he lent money to his relatives and borrowed from the bank, racking up huge debts that he kept secret. “At first we really loved each other, but as time passed we knew that our relationship was becoming worse and worse,” Nary said.
She sought a divorce, as did the wife of Chhun Dara*, who said Dara didn’t know how to satisfy her. She had no fear of being a divorcee, he added.
“My mother-in-law said that her daughter is still beautiful and can find a new husband – she didn’t care whether she was divorced or not.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.