Small steps, great success
– by Susanne M. Müller
Women are like a piece of white cloth, as a Cambodian saying goes – once defiled, always defiled. Men, in contrast, are compared to diamonds. A diamond never loses its purity, no matter how often it is besmirched with dirt. You just wipe it clean and it shines anew. In poems and proverbs, women are described as virtuous ideals, bound to serve. These gender-specific stereotypes are still prevailing. A woman daring to break these rules in a traditional Cambodian family will be punished. She will be insulted, intimidated, hit or isolated, thus becoming a victim in her own home – the place where she once used to feel safe. Domestic violence is a serious problem for victims, families and society. The result is physical and psychological damage, with victims feeling helpless, humiliated and often living in fear.
After several reports about domestic violence, the Cambodian Ministry of Women’s Affairs brought the topic into the public spotlight – successfully, as shown by the comparison of two surveys dating from 2005 and 2010. In the representative Cambodian survey on “Violence against women,” conducted in 2005, the Ministry investigated the acceptance and prevalence of violence as well as the victims’ scope of action, differentiating between verbal and physical violence (ranging from slight pushing to the use of acid, knives and even guns).
At an early stage, Cambodia has become aware of the social problem of domestic violence. When adapting the Cambodian context to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the then minister of women’s affairs, Mu Sochua, made the topic a priority on the national agenda. Since 2003, Cambodia is the first country on earth to make the decrease in violence against women an indicator of the country’s Millennium Development Goals (CMDGs). Ever since, the government is obliged to elaborate legal regulations along these lines.
The Domestic Violence Law
Since the 1990s, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) have called for this kind of legislation. When the CMDGs were passed, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs introduced a domestic violence draft bill in parliament, thus establishing penalties and introducing the judicial order regarding the protection of victims.
During the first debate in the National Assembly, deputies showed rigid gender role stereotypes. Monh Saphan, of the Royalist Party Funcinpec, said aloud what everyone was thinking: “If the wives gain the right to report their husbands to authorities, they are no longer wives.” Princess Norodom Vacheara, a parliamentarian herself, was worried that parents could lose face. She feared that the traditional Asian family hierarchy was at stake: “If children can take their parents to court – even if the parents do not end up in jail – how can the parents accept this and ever face their children again?” The discussions lasted throughout the entire legislative period, yet no law was passed.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs realised that severe penalties for domestic violence were counterproductive in Cambodia, so they changed the draft bill. Victims did not want perpetrators to be sent to prison, so they did not report to the police. Very few Cambodian women would want to see their husband – and family breadwinner – go to gaol. Most simply want the violence to end.
In the subsequent legislative period, the parliament discussed the altered draft bill that was rather aiming at civil law measures. A central issue was the protection order. If their partners or other members of the family were attacked, perpetrators could now be given order to stay away from the house. Hence, on a long-term basis, perpetrators could be prohibited from entering the place of domicile in order to prevent the escalation of violence. Two years after the first debate, the parliamentarians passed the “law on the prevention of domestic violence and the protection of victims from domestic abuse” – in short: Domestic Violence Law.
With an educational campaign, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has set out to tackle the high acceptance of violence. Throughout the country, streets are lined with signs saying: “Stop violence in the family.” Television and radio spots are featuring positive family values and neighbourly help. Dialogue instead of prosecution – that is the motto.
Accordingly, officers of the police and judiciary as well as municipal councillors – and more than 13,000 municipal mayors and village chiefs throughout the country – are being trained. They learn how to distinguish between different forms of violence. They discuss the balance of power between the sexes and receive solid information concerning the new statutory rights and duties.
In the past, the village chiefs used to mediate whenever a couple was quarrelling. In most cases, this traditional mediation led to an official reconciliation. Yet, problems often remained unsolved, and further violence was not prevented in a sustainable way.
In cases of domestic violence, the new Domestic Violence Law not only transfers competence of intervention to the police, but also to the local administrative officers. This implies that village chiefs and municipal mayors now have to adjust. Instead of a forced agreement, it is now about the protection of victims. However, the regulation for privacy invasion has not yet been fully standardised. Due to their geographical proximity, the local officials serve as important points of reference for citizens in cases of social conflict – despite several still existing shortcomings.
Success and contradiction
Formerly, the judiciary and police were keeping out of the domain of privacy. The activities of local authorities ended at the people’s front doors. In 2005, most Cambodians still felt that domestic violence was a family matter only. Moreover, a man was supposed to have more rights than a woman. He controlled family life. The Domestic Violence Law is a paradigm shift, bringing private conflicts into the focus of public interest. In order for judicial and police officers – predominantly men – to implement the law, a lot of effort is being put into the development of their professional competence.
Education and training of the several occupational groups are yet to be standardised. However, without police regulations as a legal framework, there are limits. At any rate, the training of judicial officers is a big challenge for Cambodia – due to a comprehensive reform of civil and criminal law.
The political influence on the judicial system and the extensive corruption lead to an increasing culture of impunity. So far, the law that enforces the prevention of domestic violence and the protection of victims has a restricted effect on the legal reality of women. However, the Domestic Violence Law has accelerated the change in values. Today, 96 % of Cambodian men and 98 % of women consider the law against domestic violence useful.
The 2010 follow-up study on “Violence against women”, financed by GTZ and UNFPA, reveals further changes. Compared with the data of the 2005 baseline study, it shows that violence is now less accepted than it was five years ago. The percentage of Cambodian men who consider it justified to throw objects has dropped by 30 %. The number of men who approve of beating and the use of chains has dropped by 16 % – and by 29 % of women, respectively. Knives tend to be used less and less as a means for resolving conflicts, but 21 % of men and 27 % of women still consider it justified to do so.
Altogether, violent behaviour is less and less accepted – this demonstrates a change in values. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs still has a long way to go: there is a wide gap between what citizens accept and what they consider a criminal act. More than 96 % of men consider it a criminal act to threaten someone with a knife or to choke another person. At the same time, 12 % find it acceptable. Such contradictions of cultural and social understanding remain a challenge – not only in Cambodia.