Domestic Violence in Cambodia by Nikki Myers
The impact from the violence of the Khmer Rouge regime continues to affect everyone in Cambodia. However, the affect on women is not only disproportionate; it's shocking. Violence against women in the form of domestic abuse, rape, and sex trafficking is a devastating human rights issue for the country.
Before the Cambodian legislature enacted the Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims in September 2005, domestic violence was legal. Unfortunately, even though its now law on the books, the legal enforcement is slow to non-existent. According to a March 2007 report published by the Cambodia League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) the reported cases of domestic violence from 2004 - 2006 increased more than 28%. For the same period, the reported cases of rape increased ~23% (with a 20% increase between 2005 and 2006 alone). Without a doubt, these and other crimes against women are under reported, making data collection challenging. Reasons for this include; victim shame, legal and judicial system distrust and the culture of silence around these topics.
The cultural issues surrounding violence against women in Cambodia reveals a web of complexity. Gender disparity runs deep. Cultural norms define a woman's role primarily as wife and mother, tasked with child rearing, household responsibility and ensuring their husbands success. Unwritten cultural laws include: females should be subservient to men, a man's sexual desire is insatiable and will take multiple women, and a woman is no longer marriage material once her virginity she is lost. Prevailing cultural beliefs seem to feed the view that a man has a right to beat his wife and household matters are private, not public concern.
Cambodian government inaction and cultural norms notwithstanding, the layers go deeper still. That brings us back to the impact of violence, and relative to Cambodia specifically, the violence of the Khmer Rouge.
Upon deplaning at the Phnom Penh airport earlier this week, the same undeniable heaviness, the spirit of unacknowledged depression that I sensed on my last visit, returned.
It's clear that three decades after the bloody regime of Pol Pot, despite the upcoming tribunal of the first senior Khmer Rouge figure, reconciliation is a long way from reality for the people of Cambodia - especially women.
The cyclical nature of violence reveals the disturbing phenomena that victims of violence become the perpetrators of violence. It's the pedagogy of the oppressed. In the case of Cambodia, the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, which left the country in abject material and societal poverty, inflated the use of alcohol, drugs and other addictions, family violence and the oppression of women.
Two days ago, our group visited the Steung Meanchey dump, an 11 acre and at some points 100 ft deep dumping ground where families live and work, scavenging though poisonous waste for anything with the slightest resale value. The situation of the many woman and children living at the dump is beyond desperate, its incomprehensible. Every story I hear, leads back to the genocide. I am there to witness and give dignity to even this human experience.
Even in this desperation, there is hope. The organization that we are working with, The Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF), searches the dump tirelessly day-after-day to retrieve children and lead them to safe haven from that dangerous, toxic hell. At CCF, the children not only receive meals, housing, medical/dental care and schooling, they're taught values, self-esteem and coping skills. Rather than resignation, resentment or apathy, what I experience working with the executives and staff at CCF is acceptance of the ‘hell on earth' they witness daily in all its complexity while consciously taking appropriate and committed action to make a difference.
A teacher that I dearly love once said "joy and horror live on the same plane." As I feel and contemplate the conundrum that is Cambodia, I can't help but embody both. Despite the horror of genocide, there's a paradoxical joy and simplicity in this "The Kingdom of Wonder."
I'm here with a group of 20 women and what I know is that women are the healers, the intuitives, the nurturers of our world. Another teacher and dear friend often tells the story of a man and wife walking the beach and stumbling upon hundreds of starfish that had washed ashore. As they walked, the woman would pick up a starfish and throw it back out to sea. Her husband remarked that her efforts were useless because she could never save them all. The wife responded, "yeah, but I saved that one."
What our little group does here won't fix or rectify the horror, but like the starfish, woman-to-woman, one at a time we too are taking conscious action to make a difference in the world.