Cambodian women have made impressive progress in working towards equality. But divorce or a death can still leave a woman with nothing.
Ministry of Women's Affairs Dr. Ing Kantha Phavi said most women remain unaware of their rights and often face social pressure to continue living in an unhappy marriage. She told a recent workshop, titled Access to Divorce for Women in Cambodia, that women need greater support during the difficult process of divorce, and better protection of their rights.
Divorced Cambodian women face social stigma. Many prefer to suffer an abusive husband in silence.
The ministry stressed that divorce was a devastating experience for all involved, and should be a last resort. But, she added, “As there are reasons to try to save a marriage, there are also reasons to end one.”
“A divorce has more negative economic and social consequences on women than on men, which leaves women often without the means to financially support herself and her children. And many women have little or no knowledge of their rights and how to claim them.”
According to the UNDP, Cambodian traditions do not condone violence in the home, either by parents towards children or husbands towards wives. Nonetheless, 23 percent of ever-married women over the age 15 who were surveyed in the 2000 Cambodia Demographic Health Survey (CDHS) reported being physically abused in the home.
Abused women have limited options. If they do not own land or other assets, they risk losing financial support for themselves and their children when they leave their husbands. If a husband is imprisoned, the wife loses his income for that period and she risks that he will return more abusive than ever.
Ouk Kimleng, legal director of Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC), an implementing partner of UNDP's Access to Justice Project (A2J), told Economics Today that three main factors drive divorce in Cambodia, especially in rural areas (LAC's findings are primarily related to the poor). They found violence to be the main cause of divorce, followed by male infidelity and irresponsibility.
He said wives fear the social isolation, costs and complex procedures associated with divorce. Those without a proper education, fewer skills and less access to information are more vulnerable as they can be more easily abused and exploited in the informal economy, he added. Some are lured and trafficked across the border to neighboring countries.
So Kimleng strongly suggests Cambodian women to register for an official marriage certificate to provide better legal protection. A legally married woman can legally claim support from her ex-husband for her under 18-year-old children and receives other legal protection, at least in theory.
In fact, while men and women have equal legal rights as regards property ownership, many poorly educated Khmer women have a deep fear of the authorities in any form, and little or no knowledge of property laws. This means they are unable or unwilling to register land that they are legally entitled to in the case of a divorce of death of the head of the household.
A World Bank assessment found that “the rights of women, especially women-headed households, are often ignored, partly due to their lack of knowledge of land rights and of land titling procedures.”
Land liberalization in 1989 and the confusion that followed due to unclear legislation, resulted in negative impacts on women's land rights, especially for female household heads, found the World Bank. ‘War widows' own less land than the general population. Of those that own land, 84 percent own less than half a hectare. “Women in male-headed households face a different set of constraints with respect to land. … Women's rights to land may be weakened by their subordinate status within a household where land rights are vested in the name of the male head of household,” the World Bank found. The land law passed in 2001 includes a progressive measure to ensure that both women and men are identified as owners of the land, but women's low literacy limits their access to information about land issues, sales and rights.
Under the law, women have equal inheritance rights. However, the cultural idea that women are of lower status than men has led to a perception that the head of a Cambodian family should be male, legitimizing discrimination that can result in dispossession. More commonly, women's typically lower level of education means they are often unaware of their rights, and/or afraid to go against well-established societal norms by publicly speaking up against dispossession or land grabbing, especially when it involves a male relative.
Cambodia needs to do more to ensure that divorced and bereaved women do not fall by the wayside.
“As there are reasons to try to save a marriage, there are also reasons to end one.” Dr. Ing Kantha Phavi, Ministry of Women's Affairs