What is needed to end violence against women in Cambodia?

It is no secret that, worldwide, women are disproportionately affected by partner violence, namely the violence committed by their current or former husbands or boyfriends. The latest global study on Homicide (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2013) finds that almost half of all women, who were victims of homicide in 2012, were killed by intimate partners or family members, compared to less than six per cent of men killed in the same year.

Cambodia is no stranger to such violence. Yet, in Cambodia, the number of women murdered by current or former partners is simply unknown. As this year’s 16 Days of Activism Campaign to End Violence Against Women begins, we still do not know how many Cambodian women, victims of these sexist crimes, need to be remembered and mourned.

Data shows that beating, harassing and abusing women do not cause much legal trouble for male perpetrators. A survey undertaken of 2,000 Cambodian men, by four UN agencies, found that as many as 1 in 5 of the respondents have attempted or committed violence against women, including rape (Partners for Prevention 2013). Almost half of those admitting to perpetrating violence stated that they never faced legal consequences (Ibid.).

This is a major blot on the 16 Days of Activism. As it stands the justice system is ineffective when it comes to protecting women against domestic violence. Although the implementation of the Domestic Violence Law (2004) has not been evaluated, there is a wide consensus among service providers that the law is not making male perpetrators accountable for the violence their commit. The law’s language is too ambiguous and does not systematically address intimate partner violence as a crime.

Moreover, the Ministry of Justice does not release data on the number of protection orders issued for women victims of domestic violence. The Cambodian police lack specialized units, personnel and tailored-made protocols to protect victims of intimate partner and sexual violence and to prosecute perpetrators effectively. Courts and judges also lack the know-how to adjudicate gender-based violence cases.

Positively, there have been good efforts and initiatives from the Royal Government of Cambodia to address gender-based violence against women. Examples include the health sector’s adoption of guidelines and practices to improve the treatment of female victims of violence. Equally, new standards have been developed under the leadership of the Women’s Affairs Ministry to improve service provider responses at sub-national level. But much stronger steps are needed to address a problem of pandemic proportions, which requires a more robust multi-sectoral response.

According to a national survey commissioned by the Government and the UN in 2015, 32 per cent of partnered Cambodian women experience emotional abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime; while 21 per cent face physical and/or sexual violence, and 8 per cent experienced physical and/or sexual violence in the past 12 months.

Women victims of intimate partner violence are often trapped by economic dependence on their perpetrators. Females are so disempowered and pressured by their relatives, communities and society that they tend to keep quiet and suffer in solitude. Most women victims of intimate partner violence do not report the violence they experience. They are forced to live with the devastating consequences for their and their children’s health, education and livelihoods. The few women who do opt to report the perpetrator to the authorities or those that ask for a divorce (the most common way out), often end up in pointless mediation processes that simply result in their further victimization.

In Cambodian popular culture, the rape, torture and sexual abuse of women is often depicted in comical terms. Everyone can remember the inappropriate comments of Meas Rithy, a TV host who joked about the rape and murder of a Cambodian woman during his programme aired on 10th August. Trivialization and gags about the physical and sexual abuse of women perpetuate such violence and reinforce the false social perception that women victims are guilty and are to be blamed for the violence they suffer. Male perpetrators of gender-based violence - not female victims - are the ones responsible for these crimes and the ones who should be prosecuted and publicly repudiated.

This unfortunate case proves the importance of engaging journalists and media to deliver more professional and ethical broadcasting standards. Earlier this year, the Women’s Affairs and Information ministries launched a media code of conduct for reporting violence against women. This excellent initiative will help to educate and engage journalists with further support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida).

Addressing the challenges ahead requires that more government, political, civil society and development leaders stand-up against violence and take necessary actions.

There are several ways that Government, working alongside partners, can do to remedy the situation. The Domestic Violence Law could be amended or repealed. Intimate partner violence is a crime that would be better legally prosecuted by the Penal Code. The creation of a specialized unit in the Cambodian Police would help to deal with intimate partner and sexual violence more effectively, with well-trained and gender-responsive police officers deployed across the country. Establishment of specialized courts and appointment of special judges, and building their capacities to deal with such cases, would also contribute to address gender-based violence more adequately.

Health personnel need also to be empowered to provide evidence that can be used to prosecute perpetrators. Economic empowerment of women and their children must be enhanced so they can gain the personal autonomy to break the cycle of violence. Education in schools and messaging in media is essential to help blunt sexist behavior and attitudes that perpetuate gender-based violence against women.

Only a holistic response, political will and stronger government investment can make real progress in the fight against misogynistic violence in Cambodia. So now is the time for everyone to stand-up. Remaining silent or disengaged is not an option. No country can achieve its full social and economic potential while women (who in Cambodia comprise more than half of the population) are at risk of gender-based violence, and only few male perpetrators are held accountable.