Women Opinion

Poor protection for Cambodian women adds insult to injury

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Most cases of domestic violence in Cambodia go unreported (UN Women Asia and the Pacific | Flickr)

Domestic violence is rife in Cambodia, where men commonly feel entitled to beat and assault women publicly while those around them do nothing about it, writes Johanna Higgs.

I AM IN Siem Reap, Cambodia, standing outside my small house in the countryside. The ever-present warm breeze blows over me and chickens scurry through the long, dry grass. Tall palm trees shade a dusty path that leads to the neighbour's small, ramshackle house.

All appears normal.

Then suddenly, I hear a little boy screaming. I turn and see my six-year-old neighbour tearing across the dusty path ahead of me, his father running after him. The man has something metal in his hand and hurls it at the little boy.

Horrified, I go towards the house. I see the little boy shaking and cowering behind his mother. I turn and see the father, in a fit of rage and fury, with a huge pipe in his hand, ready to smash it down on top of both of them. I shout at him to stop, but he doesn’t listen. Without a moment's thought, I stand between them, raise my hand up towards the man and again, shout at him to stop.  

He stops. He steps back, puts the pipe down and angrily turns around to get on his motorbike.

Seeming to have gained a moment of courage, his wife begins to shout angrily at him. The little boy is sobbing and shaking with fear. None of the nearby people come to help or console either of them. Nobody seemed particularly shocked by what had just happened.

I asked the woman if she was okay and she burst into tears. She lifted her shirt to show me a big red mark on the side her stomach where he had hit her. She then lifted her finger and I saw that it was bent in the wrong way.

This is, sadly, a typical scene in Cambodia and, indeed, in other parts of the world — men feeling entitled to beat and assault women publicly while those around them do nothing about it.

According to a report by the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, 20% of Cambodian women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in a relationship or marriage and a third of women have experienced emotional abuse.

The same report also showed that 24% of Cambodian women experienced physical violence during pregnancy, 18% of women experienced forced sex by an intimate partner and 13% of women have experienced physical violence by a non-partner — though these numbers are most likely much higher.

However, many, if not most, cases of domestic violence in Cambodia go unreported. This is largely due to social norms that expect women to obey their husbands and tolerate violence for the sake of their families.

Shockingly, a 2013 report by the United Nations showed that 96.2% of Cambodian men and 98.5% of Cambodian men and 98.5% of Cambodian women think that a woman should obey her husband and 67% of women believe that they should endure abuse.

Cambodia is currently ranked 117 out of 162 countries on the Gender Inequality Index by the United Nations.

What this means is that women and children are left to suffer in silence while perpetrators, for the most part, go unpunished. Perpetrators learn that not only will nothing happen to them when they inflict pain and suffering on others, but they learn that it is their right to perpetuate these cycles of violence and discrimination.

Little boys grow up seeing that nothing will happen to them should they be violent and little girls grow up seeing that nobody will protect them when men are violent towards them. And it must be said that such atrocities only take place because they are allowed to.

Without condemnation from those around them, men like the man I encountered that day will continue to be violent without fear of consequence — because there aren’t any consequences.

This needs to stop.

What should have happened that day was that everybody there should have intervened. They should have stood up to protect the woman and her child from the man with the metal pipe — they should have condemned him and they should have called the police.

They should have consoled her and the little boy — the man should have been shunned and rejected. She should have been supported. If that had happened, the message would have been clear: violence against women and children is not okay and perpetrators will be punished.

If that were to happen in Cambodia – and everywhere else where violence against women and children runs rife – we would see a much safer and better world for everybody.

Johanna Higgs is an anthropologist and founder of Project MonMa, which advocates for women’s rights around the world.

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