Opinion: Harnessing Popular Pressure in the Name of Gender Equity

Screenshots from security footage posted by Duong Chhay’s ex-wife Deth Malina on her Facebook page.
Screenshots from security footage posted by Duong Chhay’s ex-wife Deth Malina on her Facebook page.

In the past several years, Cambodia has seen several high-profile cases of abuse against women gain viral levels of public and official attention. But has this type of attention been effective in creating lasting progress toward gender equity?

In May last year, the story of Meas Pich Rita, known as Yubi, went viral on Facebook in Cambodia. Yubi had been detained by police for theft but then filed a complaint alleging that she had instead been the victim of attempted rape by tycoon Heng Sier. Thanks to virality on Facebook, this case also caught the attention of public figures and top authorities, including Prime Minister Hun Sen’s own lawyers who requested Pich Rita to be released on bail.

Earlier that same year, in March, a series of videos showing domestic violence committed by tycoon Duong Chhay against his ex-wife, Deth Malina This incident also stoked public outcry on social media in Cambodia. One video showed Chhay dragging Malina into a room and beating her. In another incident, he pulled her hair and hands while she held their son on her lap in a bedroom. The reactions from the public ultimately attracted the attention of Hun Sen, who then sent a letter to request the acting head of state to remove Chhay’s title of oknha.

Another sexual assault case in 2015 sparked similar outrage among Cambodian social media users. In a video that went viral on Facebook, Ek Socheata, also known as “Sasa,” a female TV presenter, was punched, kicked, and beaten by property tycoon Sok Bun as his bodyguard pointed a gun at her. Likewise, once the case got public attention, Prime Minister Hun Sen intervened to condemn the perpetrator.

What lessons do these high-profile cases have to offer?

All three show the ways in which populism is influencing how high-profile gender issues are dealt with — Cambodian elites and authorities pay attention to gender inequity only when there is a reaction from the public.

“We have seen reactions from a flood of people, and it showed that the court of the people considered it unacceptable and unjust, so some top leaders and officials saw it as injustice and made an intervention which was about addressing injustices, but also about seeking popularity,” Am Sam Ath — a monitoring manager at human rights group Licadho — told VOD, regarding the aftermath of the Yubi case in 2021.

But when politicians use gender equity in this way, as a populist tool to appeal to the sympathies of the public, these episodes may generate temporary political goodwill, but will not lead to lasting change for the women (and men) who need it most — at least not without sustained and strategic public attention.

What Shouldn’t Be Forgotten

This tendency in mainstream gender discourse where public and official interest in gender equity shifts so dramatically — from frenzied outrage to complete inaction — makes sustainable gender equity progress difficult.

As we have seen in these high-profile cases, when the public attention fades away, the interest of officials also disappears. As a result, the judicial system is not made accountable, transparent and independent in dealing with violence against women.

After all, what has happened to Heng Sier, Duong Chhay and Sok Bun? The answer is that justice has not been served in the above three cases and there has been a lack of follow-up from the public.

Domestic violence that does not escalate to the level of murder is often not considered a severe enough crime to be dealt with by courts, and it rarely hits the news until it is too late.

In the case of Yubi, even though the court dropped the theft charge against Meas Pich Rita, nothing has been heard regarding whether Sier will ever face prosecution for the allegation of attempted rape.

As for Chhay, he was stripped of the title oknha, but escaped police questioning altogether after briefly joining the monkhood. Up until present day, no one knows the status of the investigation, including related authorities: Chhay Kim Khoeun, spokesperson for the National Police, and Justice Ministry secretary of state Kim Santepheap told VOD that they were “unaware of the case status because it was with the courts.”

In the case of Sok Bun, he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, yet had all but 10 months of his sentence suspended.

In the judicial system, the courts appear to act only when they are told to do so. Noticing this trend, Sok Touch, the head of Cambodia’s Royal Academy, has termed this judicial apparatus as “a remote-controlled court”. And this remote-controlled court has left the perpetrators unpunished or with an inappropriate sentence once public attention has died out.

Who Shouldn’t Be Forgotten

If relatively privileged women struggle to capture and sustain long-term public attention on the challenges they face related to violence against women and harassment — and to achieve justice for themselves and accountability from their perpetrators — these challenges are even greater for more disadvantaged women.

Despite being the ones experiencing intimate partner violence the most, poorer women cannot afford the luxury to report to the police, knowing they would lose their breadwinners, or hesitate to do so out of fear or shame.

When the daily abuse is unbearable, however, some decide to seek help, only to realize justice is not on their side. Without the public attention on cases like these, populist elite authorities do not step in to demand judicial consideration.

For instance, one garment factory worker was physically abused every day to the point she could not stand and decided to file a complaint to the police — who released  her husband after only reprimanding him. She was later found suffocated to death. Her landlord found her corpse three days after her death in her rented room while her husband went on the run.

Domestic violence that does not escalate to the level of murder is often not considered a severe enough crime to be dealt with by courts, and it rarely hits the news until it is too late. Even then, in some cases, there is little or no follow-up by the media and little is known by the public about the perpetrators’ punishment. Then when some cases of serious domestic and gender-based violence do make it to the criminal court, sentencing is light with many abusers given punishments well below the legal minimum.

A report from Licadho in 2017 highlighted several cases where justice was not served. In one case, a perpetrator beat his mother-in-law who tried to stop him from attacking her daughter to death, only to have his charges reduced from two years to eight months. He was initially charged with intentional violence resulting in death, for which the penalty is seven to 15 years.

In another case, a husband tried to cut his wife’s throat, and in another, a husband shot his wife to death. Both perpetrators were charged with violence against a spouse — a crime punishable by two to five years in prison — but not attempted murder, which has a sentence of 10-15 years in prison, according to the Criminal Code.

Not only do these cases show a lack of accountability and confusion over which laws apply, they also do not spark public outcry despite the unfair punishment — and therefore do not grab the attention of well-placed authorities who can spur courts into reviewing their prosecutions.

Despite being the ones experiencing intimate partner violence the most, poorer women cannot afford the luxury to report to the police.

What’s Next?

Interest from the public in gender equity issues, as we have seen previously in Cambodia, follows a boom and bust cycle of engagement. Instead of framing this as a negative, it is more useful to explore how this type of engagement can be sustained over the long term, and used to enhance gender equity in a more systematic way.

After all, such public engagement has been proven to be effective when applied in a strategic, sustained manner. In 2020, for instance, after the Cambodian government introduced a new draft law on public order, in which Article 36 prohibited women from wearing clothes that are “too short” or “too see-through,” Cambodian citizens, especially women, expressed their resistance on social media, including setting up an online petition and posting images of themselves in swimwear and outfits that would be prohibited by this legislation. This online engagement from the public seemed to tip the scales against such repressive policy — the draft legislation didn’t come into effect in 2021 as it was supposed to; the draft was even shared with the public for discussion, which is rare for the government to do.

Cambodian citizens should be aware that their voices, attention, and participation matter and can move powerful people to make changes in further pushing for gender equity. In addition to just paying attention when an outrageous injustice against women lands in the news, we need more continual engagement around this issue from the public — both in the form of victim advocacy and support and in the form of demanding legal justice for perpetrators — as well as sustained attention and interest from politicians.

If politicians only see this issue as a populist tool to harness and gain public goodwill when public outrage boils over, then the public should take notice. If the public can give this issue long-term attention, perhaps politicians can be convinced to pursue long-term solutions.

Theang Soriya is currently a research student at Waseda University in Japan and a junior research fellow at Phnom Penh think-tank Future Forum. Previously, she was a graduate from the American University of Phnom Penh.

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