As the economic impact of the pandemic settled in, Sothea’s husband lost his work as a driver. As his work declined, his drinking increased.
When she complained, his family stepped in.
“His mother told me to stay silent about the problems. She told me her son had always been that way and that I should be a proper woman: Support my husband and just let him win,” Sothea says.
Sothea, who is in her 20s, sits outside a cafe in Kandal province as she recalls the escalating abuse that eventually led to her filing for a divorce last year.
“He would often come home drunk and although he never hit me, he would fly into a drunken rage over anything — if I made him the wrong meal or made it differently from how his mother cooked it — he would shout and break things,” she says.
“It made me feel so bad, so worthless.”
Amid a global economic slump, as many as 300,000 people in the country have lost their jobs, according to Prime Minister Hun Sen. An estimated 130,000 migrant workers have also come back from abroad, often driven by joblessness. Meanwhile, emergency cash handouts have been distributed to 2 million people, according to the government.
In Kampong Speu province in January, a 70-year-old man allegedly murdered his wife over mounting debt. Others have spoken of family members returning from abroad and struggling at home. But physical violence makes up just a part of the abuse women face, with millions of women worldwide enduring emotional, psychological and economic violence — often at the hands of their partners. The pandemic, experts warn, has likely exacerbated this spectrum of violence against women.
Kry Suyheang, executive director of Women Peace Makers, says the costs are being felt in communities, and borne by women.
“What we’ve seen in the communities we work in is increased tensions due to a significant drop in job opportunities and that drop in income that we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, it expands to the family,” Suyheang says. “It makes it easier for violent things to happen.”
As the country continues to grapple with Covid-19, domestic tensions are rising, women are facing heightened risks, and, when cases of abuse arise, the problems are often still being swept under the rug, advocates say.
Money and Culture
“It was less than a year into our marriage that things started to go wrong,” says Sothea, whose name has been changed. “My husband just wouldn’t listen to me.”
For Sothea, the warning signs were obvious early on, but his parents dismissed her concerns for years. They urged her to play the role of wife.
“They would say anything to justify what he said or did,” Sothea says.
“For years, I thought that I had to forgive him. I thought it was normal for a husband to control all of the money in a home — he never shared his income with me, but demanded that I give him my wages,” she says.
He frequently took her wages from the garment factory where she worked and spent them on alcohol, she says. She endured the marriage for almost a decade before Covid-19 finally made it unbearable.
Bunn Rachana, executive director of women’s rights organization Klahaan, says women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Women-dominated sectors, such as garments manufacturing, have been among the worst hit, while the burden of school closures also largely falls on women, Rachana says.
For years, I thought that I had to forgive him. I thought it was normal…
But none of the difficulties households face is an excuse for abuse, she says.
“It is important to note that scarcity and hardship are not direct causes of, nor excuses for intimate partner violence,” Rachana said. “Rather, scarcity is one factor that increases the likelihood that a partner will actively choose to perpetrate violence, usually as an assertion of dominance and an attempt to feel in control.”
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), says Cambodia suffers from some entrenched attitudes that put women at risk.
“Cambodia is still a deeply patriarchal society and unfortunately, entrenched social norms that devalue the rights of women and girls and unequal power relations has resulted in gender-based violence being widespread,” Sopheap says.
One source of the beliefs is the Chbab Srey — doctrines based on a 14th-century poem that defined the role of females in Cambodian society — which Sopheap says still has immense influence despite its formal removal from public schools’ curricula in 2007.
“The principle of female submissiveness that it embodies continues to inform the conception of the ideal Cambodian woman,” Sopheap says.
Indeed, a 2013 survey conducted by Partners4Prevention found that 93 percent of Cambodian women and 82 percent of Cambodian men still believed that the woman’s primary role was to raise children and care for the house.
But women also perceived more abuse in relationships than men — often by as much as 50 percent, according to the survey.
Ian Ramage, chief technical officer of Angkor Research, which studied the economic fallout of the pandemic in a survey of village chiefs, says poverty and violence were found to be linked, but other clear trends around domestic violence were hard to find.
“These figures aren’t nationally representative,” says Ramage. “But they are nationally indicative.”
Settling Abuse In-House
CCHR’s Sopheap adds that there is a severe shortage of services available for Cambodian women and victim-blaming remains a common attitude among those in power.
“The belief that family matters are ‘private,’ or that experiencing sexual violence has ‘ruined’ the women, result in many women who have experienced gender-based violence never seeking justice or seeking a resolution through informal dispute resolution methods,” says Sopheap, who warned the government about the gendered-impact that Covid-19 would have in April 2020.
He would fly into a drunken rage over anything — if I made him the wrong meal or made it differently from how his mother cooked it — he would shout and break things.
Women Peace Makers, along with Klahaan and the Cambodian Center for Mediation, published a report in October 2020 that reassessed the alternative dispute resolution processes used in cases of domestic abuse in Cambodia.
One of the most common services available to victims of domestic violence in Cambodia is conciliation — by which a third party negotiator attempts to reconcile the abused and abuser — but this typically pushes couples to stay together rather than go to the courts for divorce or legal proceedings.
The whole process, the report says, distorts the rights of victims and is generally aimed at keeping couples together, irrespective of the abuse endured within the relationship. The report also says that an overwhelming majority of women are unaware of the legal protections available to them and had a negative experience of alternative dispute resolution.
The 2005 Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims states that cases of domestic violence are divided into “severe misdemeanors” and “minor misdemeanors” — a distinction that does not exist in the Criminal Code. The law prohibits alternative dispute resolution services from being used in cases of “severe misdemeanors” but allows it for “minor misdemeanors,” which remain undefined.
Women Peace Makers’ Suyheang says the system leads to authorities advising women based on stereotypical gender roles and blaming the victims.
“‘Don’t get divorced, you’ll face stigmatization’ — this is the sort of thing they say. Their goal is to reconcile the couple, keep them together,” she says. “Mediation has no such goals, solving the problem is the point and facilitating the conversations needed to do so.”
The lack of state-run shelters for survivors of domestic abuse, along with the lack of resources granted to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, have entrenched cultural attitudes towards a sensitive topic, Suyheang warns. The attitudes toward women held by authorities have hijacked the policies they’re supposed to implement, she says.
“Often their idea of preserving harmony is really just preventing justice, it’s overriding the rights of women to free speech and it’s not a suitable practice,” she says.
Phon Puthborey, spokesperson for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, says services being delivered by provincial departments of women’s affairs increased about 10 percent from 2019 to 2020, but it is inconclusive whether this corresponds to a rise in domestic abuse.
“Many cases go unreported and so we cannot make a record,” he adds, noting that the government has not conducted any studies into the impact of the pandemic on domestic violence.
“Right now, we just don’t have the data,” Puthborey says. “But experiences in other countries have shown us that — even without complete lockdowns — the pandemic has made issues of domestic violence and gender-based violence worse.”
Puthborey says the ministry has been proactive, raising awareness of services available and providing gender-specific training to police.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak says rising domestic violence amid Covid-19 is a problem worldwide, and NGOs are overlooking cases where reconciliations end well.
“They forget that there have been many families that they do not know are living happily together after finding a compromise with authorities,” Sopheak says.
But Klahaan’s Rachana says that seeking help is still too hard. Few women can afford to live alone or support children and so will not pursue prosecution — even in extremely violent relationships, she says.
For Sothea, reaching the point of getting outside help took a long time — and potentially being separated from her daughter.
One day last year, she asked her husband to leave the house, she says.
“He took my daughter, he took all of our property — everything we had shared in the marriage — he took his motorbike and mine, all of our possessions were gone. My mother-in-law told me if I wanted my daughter back, I’d have to go through the courts,” Sothea recounts, visibly distraught.
She says she had no understanding of her legal rights. But her sister put her in touch with legal counsel through an NGO. From there, Sothea was able to pursue justice through the courts.
“My husband used to call me and threaten me, trying to pressure me into going back to him, but after I won the case, my daughter was returned to live with me and the judge made him sell one of the motorbikes and share the money with me,” she says, noting that the court also ruled that her husband give her monthly payments of child support.
Sothea says she has so far received just one payment of 50,000 riel, about $12.50, over several months. But her life is better.
“I feel happier. When I finish work, I come home to my daughter. We eat together in peace. I was teaching her while the schools were closed — the court’s decision has made all the difference,” she says.
Sothea reflects that abuse is a difficult experience to explain, and even more challenging to overcome. But she urges those who suffer within their marriages to speak out.
“Talk to your families, talk to the authorities. If they won’t do anything, go to the courts. There are organizations out there that can help,” she says. “Most people — especially women — don’t know their rights, so it’s important to talk to people about your legal options.”
Additional reporting by Mech Dara
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage change in services delivered by provincial departments of women’s affairs.