When her long-time abusive husband threw a coconut at her head and began to strangle her on Monday evening, Chea Reth struck back.
“The wife took a bamboo stick and attacked him to death,” said commune police chief Tan Sokun on Wednesday. The husband, Chhem Thang You, 41, was drunk and fell as his wife hit him. He died from injuries to the face and jaw.
“Anytime he got drunk, he acted like this. He mistreated the wife and caused trouble for his wife, and attacked and beat the wife,” Sokun said.
Domestic violence is not unusual in Cambodia: The country’s latest demographic health survey from 2014 says 27 percent of women in their 40s have experienced physical violence. Among all married women in the survey, 56 percent of the violence was perpetrated by their current husbands.
But criticism has persisted that authorities prefer to push couples toward reconciliation rather than prosecute abusive husbands.
Sokun, the police chief in Banteay Meanchey province’s Chamnoam commune, acknowledged that authorities in Mongkol Borei district had long known about the violence against Reth.
“In the past, he would assault his wife, sometimes using bamboo, while the wife did not want to fight back,” he said. “She endured it for so many years, so that day she couldn’t control her feelings and she fought back. He always beat her with his hands and sometimes with wooden sticks.”
Commune police had responded to prior incidents between the couple, he added. “We often educated them to comply with safety in the village and commune.”
On Tuesday, his force arrested Reth and sent her to the provincial police. “It’s very difficult for us,” Sokun said. “She told us that she defended herself because her husband always beat her.”
Reth has now been charged: Provincial court spokesperson Samrith Sokhon said late Wednesday that she faces seven to 15 years in prison for intentional violence causing death. The potential punishment is somewhat less than that for murder (10-15 years).
Commune police chief Sokun said education for abusive couples was standard practice.
“Mostly they quarrel with each other and break plates and pots — there hasn’t been an issue like this. … There are not many cases because we often disseminate the law.”
The village chief was usually assigned to find a compromise, but if they did not listen, they would be summoned to the commune police station for further education, he said.
“Regarding this family, we educated them many times [but] in the past it did not lead to this big problem,” Sokun said.
Kouk Ponley village chief Or Savong said the couple had been married for over 20 years, and there had been endless abuse.
The wife had escaped to two other residences at times to get away from the violence that came every time the husband got drunk.
“She had escaped from her home to another home and to her mother’s home, and hoped that she would be safe. But she wasn’t,” Savong said. “Some families, after they have been educated, they stop. But for him, he did not stop.”
“Even though she attacked him, it was because he used violence,” Savong said. “She was not the one who started it.”