Thursday, 6 March 2008

Cambodian women find shelter from abuse

Thu Mar 6, 2008
By Lach Chantha

PHNOM PENH (Reuters Life!) - Cambodia's violent past has been laid open in the "Killing Fields" war crime trials, but another widespread form of violence here remains hidden: domestic abuse.

While there are no official statistics, activists estimate that one out of every four Cambodian women is the target of abuse within her home. Many are too afraid to seek help or do not know how to, and women's shelters are still a novelty.

Scholars say decades of conflict, including the Khmer Rouge "Killing Fields" in which an estimated 1.7 million people died, have eroded family ties. Cambodians say domestic violence is problem that goes back generations.

"I see that the biggest cause of domestic violence is the seizure of power in the family. The husband has the power and he does not want his wife to complain," said Oung Chanthol, executive director of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC).

Chanthol's organisation runs a shelter for battered women and has been involved in various activities to help women and children since 1997.

"Another cause is our tradition, which says the best way for women to deal with problems is to hide them in their minds. That is why abusive husbands are not afraid to continue violence against their wives," Chanthol added.

In the past, a prospective husband was required to serve his bride-to-be's family for a few years so the parents could make sure he was trustworthy. That custom has all but died out, but most men still move in with their wife and her family.


Cambodian women are traditionally the ones to inherit from the parents. But their status as heirs does not equal power.

Thirty-year-old Huong Him escaped from her house and abusive husband in Takeo province and has been living at the CWCC shelter with her three sons for two months. Too scared to leave the facility for fear that her husband might track her down, Him has been concentrating on learning how to sew.

Other women at the secret shelter learn skills such as cooking and hairdressing so they can support themselves once they leave.

"Now I am happy that I can stay here with my children and stay away from my husband. He cannot beat me anymore," Him said.

Many women do go on to become financially independent after leaving the shelter.

After a year at CWCC, Chap Neun, 35, a former victim of domestic violence who has since divorced her husband, opened a tailoring business in her home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

The business is only five months old, but Neun has a trickle of orders from neighbours which allows her to support her mother and three children.

"I don't worry anymore about my husband now. I think that I should concentrate on my work to make money to feed my children," she says.

Despite the matrilineal inheritance system, there used to be a preference for sons over daughter in Cambodia, since boys could obtain high ranking positions in the military or government as adults.

Cambodian women are still discriminated against in terms of education, legal protection and careers. But an unprecedented economic boom here has opened new opportunities for women, not only in vegetable markets and other low-skilled jobs but also in offices.


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