Gender-Based Violence in Cambodia: The Intersection of Rights and Poverty

To some, the trafficking, exploitation, and physical abuse of women and girls in developing countries are such obvious social problems that the solution seems simply to stop it through tighter laws and crackdowns in enforcement.
Yet news of a new report published the Phnom Penh Post reinforces a picture of gender-based violence in Cambodia as existing at the nexus of poverty, human rights and cultural norms in ways that can help to explain why trafficking remains such a robust practice in Cambodia, and why the enforcement of stricter laws and tighter governance is not the panacea for this serious ill.
Katherine Brickell, a senior lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway at the University of London, surveyed more than 1,000 women and men over two years. Her goal was to better understand partner violence in the wake of Cambodia's new Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of the Victims, which passed seven years ago.
Her findings describe a class of beings with very little rights and even less personal agency.
Longstanding gender codes in Cambodia dictate that women confine themselves primarily to the home, to childbearing and rearing. Their role is to be subservient to their husbands.
What's more, very few women are aware of their rights under the law when it comes to equality, or a life free from violence, and even fewer men are. Out of the thousands of individuals surveyed for Brickell's study, only six percent of men said they knew about a woman's right to a life free from domestic violence. Only six percent. Take a moment to think about that.
It's impractical and economically impossible for victims to assert their rights. Since most are so dependent upon male partners, removing a violent and abusive (but wage-earning) spouse would simply plunge victims and their children into poverty. Law enforcement has expressed hesitancy to implement these laws for that very reason.
The report paints a picture of women as rights-less creatures who lack standing before the law and resources of their own. So it makes it easy to see how the exploitation and trafficking of women and girls could continue to exist today.
While raising awareness of the laws and reducing economic dependency would certainly help, these are long-term propositions. Unless we are prepared to see gender-based violence and the trafficking of women and girls continue to flourish, we have to look for additional ways to change conditions on the ground.
In the short term, it makes more sense to address the significant but often unspoken problem of attitudes about masculinity, which define the domination of, and violence towards, women as a male privilege. We need to move the needle so that violence toward women is considered an aberration rather than an accepted norm.
This will not happen because international NGOs parachute staff into local villages with solutions. This is a struggle that can only be waged effectively by Cambodians themselves.
One way is to help women and girls who have been abused and/or trafficked to develop their own means of support. This happens by listening to the survivor voice and providing opportunities that meet their needs, like skills training and education, so that they can return to their communities as empowered and educated earners who will challenge long-standing cultural norms that promote the oppression of women and girls.
Another is to begin bringing together supportive communities of men who are willing to promote a definition of masculinity that is neither violent nor oppressive and encouraging them to speak out to their peers. This is an approach that has worked successfully in dozens of other countries with groups like Promundo in Brazil and Sonke Gender Justice in Africa.
Stopping violence and trafficking is a long-term proposition. Yet we must be willing to commit to this goal and to elevating local voices to create that change. Though it will take time, the change will come.