November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the beginning of the 16 Days Campaign, a coordinated series of worldwide events to call attention to gender-based violence. Since this campaign was launched nearly two decades ago, the scope of costs that violence against women inflicts – in human suffering and economic losses that persist across generations – has become better understood and increasingly acknowledged.
“We pay a high price for violence against women,” Geeta Rao Gupta of the International Center for Research on Women said in U.S. Senate testimony last year. “The cost of a single incident of violence has a multiplier effect, from the emotional and physical toll it takes on the survivor, to an employer's loss of labor because she cannot work, a police officer's response, a doctor's care, a small health clinic's limited resources, a judge or lawyer's time. These costs add up, undermining development and foreign-assistance goals.”
Calling it a “groundbreaking occasion,” U.S. Senator John Kerry presided last year over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's first-ever full-committee hearing on the subject of violence against women. Kerry said violence against women is “a subject that is, frankly, too often separated from our larger discussion about global instability, insecurity, and violence in general.” He added that up to six of every 10 women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.
Violence against women takes many forms – rape, trafficking, forced sexual servitude, domestic violence. In different parts of Asia, all of these occur in a complex framework of unequal gender relations and entrenched attitudes about women's lower status in society. Domestic violence involves another layer of complexity about what constitutes acceptable behavior in family life. Increased attention to domestic violence in recent years has prompted countries such as Cambodia to enact national laws aimed at preventing it. But enforcing those laws is another matter, requiring a seismic shift in longstanding attitudes.
Cambodia's story reflects the underlying challenge: getting people to understand that domestic violence is a crime. More broadly, this involves getting people to value women on par with men. Introducing a recent government-commissioned survey on violence against women, Cambodia's Minister of Women's Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi wrote that “the concept of gender equality is not yet widely understood or accepted as a necessary part of our society's development.”
The 2009 survey, designed as a comparison to a similar 2005 study, presented a complicated picture. Fewer people reported knowing an abusive husband (53 percent, down from 64 percent in 2005) and more said they recognized violent acts as illegal. Yet more than half of all respondents said that a wife's argumentative or disobedient behavior warranted a violent response from her husband, even of the life-threatening type. The report also found that “keeping quiet and doing nothing was by far the most common response to physical abuse by a spouse.”
In 1994, The Asia Foundation commissioned the first-ever report on local research into domestic violence in Cambodia, Plates in a Basket Will Rattle. (The title comes from a Cambodian proverb about family life, illustrating that people who live under the same roof will inevitably have some “collisions” with each other.) This report, and others since then, emphasize the societal factors that influence domestic violence in Cambodia: a culture of male dominance; pressure on women not to sully their families' reputations by speaking up about abuse; law enforcement officials' passive stance toward intervening in domestic violence cases; the Khmer tradition of chbab srey, a women's “code of conduct” still taught in schools on the ideals of a srey krup leak (“perfect lady”), which instructs wives never to say anything negative about their husbands.
Nancy Hopkins represented The Asia Foundation in Cambodia from 1999 to 2004, as ideas about countering domestic violence were gaining some traction. She recalls what this movement was up against.
“It [domestic violence] was an acceptable way for men to blow off steam, keep order in the family, show strength to a neighbor,” Hopkins said. “Neighbors and police would turn away because it was [considered] on the list of things that men do.”
Counteracting these perceptions is a tall order, but after the 1994 report, the starting point was clear: getting people to talk openly about domestic violence. With assistance from The Asia Foundation, the Project Against Domestic Violence (PADV) opened its doors in Cambodia in 1995, a time when this problem was receiving scant attention there.
By 2002, PADV had developed a series of discussion groups that brought together men of all ages – some known for abusing their wives, others not. Convincing men to attend these meetings and discuss their perceptions of gender roles and violence was not easy. But some did attend, and even went on to form “Men Stop Violence” (MSV) – a series of networks that counter laissez faire attitudes toward violence and support women survivors of violence in their communities.
The results of pre- and post-tests from a recent PADV workshop show that women's attitudes are changing, too. At the beginning of the workshop, 87 percent of the women participants agreed with the statement, “domestic violence is a private issue and if it occurs, people outside of the family should not intervene.” Afterward, 96 percent of them disagreed with it.
Since PADV's initial work to combat violence against women, other NGOs dedicated to this issue have formed, and the government has established frameworks for addressing the problem. For example, the Cambodia Women's Crisis Center now counts changing attitudes toward violence through workshops and trainings among its key activities. The Ministry of Women's Affairs is now implementing its third five-year strategic plan on gender equality and women's empowerment. A key target is increasing awareness among the population that domestic violence is a crime. That this infrastructure to address domestic violence now exists where there was virtually none just 15 years ago is a success in itself – one that is already helping to change attitudes, one person at a time.