Family Members Empowered to Reject Violence Against Women and Girls in Cambodia
On the grounds of a Buddhist temple in a small village in Cambodia, located just a two-hour drive from Phnom Penh, a crowd congregates enthusiastically. They are the parents and grandparents from the village who come here monthly to discuss gender equality, communication skills, parenting and volunteerism– just to name a few topics.
Amongst these people is 39 year-old Sophea, whose personal experience with violence has prompted her to join Building Our Futures, a programme implemented over the past year in several villages in the province of Kampong Cham to prevent violence against women and girls.
Both Sophea and her husband, Sokhy (45), are farmers. While their two daughters Chhoamyong (15) and Chakriya (11) go to school, Sophea and Sokhy work in the field growing longan fruits or cassava, depending on the season. When Sokhy returns from a long day in the field, he is often exhausted and in a bad mood. In the past, he would sometimes erupt into violent outbursts against his family.
“I didn’t know how to solve it, I didn’t speak out about it. When there was violence, I stayed quiet”. Sophea plays nervously with her hands as she recalls that period of her life.
Violence against women in Cambodia
Her experience is, unfortunately, not unique. Violence against women is one of the most pervasive human rights violations in Cambodia. A 2015 World Health Organization survey found that one in five ever-partnered Cambodian women had experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner. The UN Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific, carried out in 2013 by Partners for Prevention and the UN, found that more than one in five men aged 18-49 in Cambodia admitted to having raped a woman. Despite these alarming figures, 75 percent of women in Cambodia believe that wives should remain silent if they suffer from domestic violence, in order to keep their family together.
A way forward
One year after Sophea and her two daughters joined the programme, they started noticing positive changes in themselves, as well as in the family as a whole.
Sophea went through an intensive 10-day training to become a community facilitator on violence prevention. The training employed a participatory learning methodology, where participants are encouraged to actively engage in the learning process. The impact it had on her, she says, was life changing. “It gave me the confidence to speak out”.
Over the course of 12 months, Sophea facilitated regular community sessions with a group of adolescents from the village, including her daughters. According to Chhoamyong, the oldest, these sessions dramatically changed the way that they behaved and communicated, as they learnt to “respect others, understand equal rights between men and women, and [not feel ashamed to] speak out about experiences of violence.”
Sophea’s husband, Sokhy, learnt about these issues through his wife and daughters. After learning about the impacts of mental and physical violence, he gradually became more aware of how his attitudes and actions were affecting other family members, and is now able to recognise the exhaustion he feels at the end of a hard day’s work as a trigger for his aggressive behaviour. “When I think about it now, I regret saying hurtful things and behaving in harmful ways. I feel so sorry.”
A comprehensive approach to violence prevention
Building Our Futures: Developing Healthy and Happy Relationships is one of the few pioneering violence prevention programmes in Cambodia to engage participation from both adolescents and their caregivers. By working with different generations, the programme aims for all members of the family – and ultimately the community – to gain awareness on gender equality, positive communication skills, and healthy relationship habits, as well as to understand and support non-violent ideals of what it means to be a man. All of these qualities are fundamental in building communities free of violence against women and girls.
“Now when tension or verbal abuse arises in my family, I use an assertive communication strategy that I learned from the training, and it has been successful when I talk with my husband and my daughters,” Sophea says.
Chhoamyong and Chakriya are not shy to comment on their parents’ parenting skills. “Oh, they were previously not so good. But after learning from the programme, we can see that they understand… and value one another a lot more. It is not the same as before,” says Chhoamyong.
Parenting skills are one of the key topics discussed in the programme, because they are instrumental in breaking the cycle of violence against women. Research has found that children who witness or experience violence in their homes are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, as well as to use violence themselves when they reach adulthood. The UN Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence found that in Cambodia, some of the main risk factors for perpetrating violence against women were childhood experiences of violence, quarrelling with a partner and holding gender-inequitable values.
From one family to a community
With so much positive change since Sophea and her daughters joined the programme, they want to spread the word and encourage more villagers to follow suit. Sokhy is sharing what he learned from his wife with other men in the village.
“When I see another man committing violence, I want to educate him to change his behaviour. I find it unacceptable and sad. We can have a good family only if we know how to value one another, have mutual understanding, and be tolerant. In short, this involves all the family members, husband, wife and children. It means speaking up, not being narrow-minded, not getting angry easily. Then happiness will come,” said Sokhy.
Sophea has also become more knowledgeable on how to handle cases of violence against women in the community and lend support to her peers. “When violence happens to a woman, I come forward to talk to the woman to understand what she has experienced. I can also refer her to the Commune Chief, or a support organization that we know through UNFPA. We have brochures, phone numbers, contact persons that can help her” she explains. Ultimately, through her work with adolescent girls and boys, Sophea is determined to prevent other women from experiencing the violence that she and many other women have had to experience. “I want to completely eliminate violence against women in my village”, she asserts.
Stories like that of Sophea and her family are giving real hope that it is possible to end violence against women in Cambodia. The programme has not only led her husband to stop using violence, but it has also unleashed a wave of positive influence and transformations within the family, and more widely, within the community. These transformations will help prevent violence against women and girls in the future
About Partners for Prevention:
Partners for Prevention (P4P) is a United Nations (UN) joint programme working to prevent violence against women and girls in Asia and the Pacific at the regional level. Based on its groundbreaking research, the UN Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific, P4P promotes and supports violence prevention initiatives and policies. Combining the strengths of four UN agencies – UN Development Programme, UN Population Fund, UN Women and UN Volunteers – with governments, civil society, and support from the Australian government, P4P transforms social norms and practices to prevent violence before it occurs. P4P’s work supports the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to achieve gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls by 2030.