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Untying knots: Cambodian women face social judgment, depression after divorce

Phnom Penh — “He brutally used violence against me. … He hit me. He grabbed my neck. I really had a hard time when I was with him, and my mental health was very unstable.”

When Thach Chanty, a 35-year-old woman from the southeastern Cambodian province of Kampong Cham recalls life with her former husband, “My tears almost fall down.”

Chanty, who works as a garment worker, now struggles to support her two children in the aftermath of a marriage she describes as colored with neglect and violence.

Escaping the brutality left her alone in a society that continues to judge divorced women as having failed in their primary social role of wife and mother. Chanty found solace in her family’s support.

“I felt sorry for my two sons after I divorced my husband,” she said. “A lot of people judge me for being divorced, but luckily my parents and sister have been there to support me.”

A recent report titled Separate Ways, released in late 2023 by the small nonprofit organization Klahaan, sheds light on the struggles faced by Cambodia’s divorced women. Beyond enduring significant social shame and judgment, the report says the divorced women are more likely to face financial and mental issues compared to their former husbands.

The report also finds little has changed since a November 2015 study by Cambodia’s statistics ministry in conjunction with a U.N. agency found approximately 20% of Cambodian women faced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner during relationships including marriage. The report also found emotional abuse affected one-third of women, violence often occurred in the presence of children and few victims sought assistance.

Gender disparities after divorce

Conducted online, the Klahaan study involved 40 female and male participants from Phnom Penh, the capital city, and remote areas, including Ratanakiri and Kep provinces. Among the participants, 22 women reported having gone through a divorce.

The study revealed significant gender disparities in the aftermath of divorce. Most participants — 87% — said women bear a heavier burden of shame or stigma following divorce, while only 1% considered men to be more affected than their partners.

The report also highlighted regional differences: 48% of survey respondents believed rural women experience more pronounced effects in the aftermath of divorce, compared to 8% who felt urban women faced social stigma and judgement.

Klahaan founder Mao Map told VOA Khmer the new study, which is based on FPAR methodology, aims to address the controversial choice of divorce for both women and men.

According to Mao Map, the prevailing belief in Cambodia is that women can marry only once in their lifetime — a notion that influences perceptions of divorce. To support women, Mao Map is pushing the government to establish policies that expedite the divorce process, lessening the need for court mediation and increasing protections for women’s health by eliminating victim-blaming by law enforcement.

Sar Sineth, spokesperson for Cambodia’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs, emphasized the government’s commitment to assisting women and girls who have experienced violence, particularly those navigating divorce and coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. She said the ministry coordinates closely with government and the legal system to provide swift support.

“We’re working hard to expedite the proceedings … in providing legal assistance to victims of … divorce due to chronic violence,” she said. “And with this provision of lawyers, the National Women’s Action Council has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Bar Association to support the victims and provide timely services.”

Sar Sineth did not respond when VOA Khmer asked for details about how women could access those services.

Infidelity prompts divorce

The study revealed that infidelity is a significant factor influencing women’s decisions to get divorced, with 81% of survey respondents identifying “cheating and affairs” as a likely cause for women choosing divorce. In contrast, only 68% selected the same response for men.

One participant said that while her husband began cheating on her soon after their marriage, after their children were born “he went too far — he brought her to sleep at the house that we had built together. In the end, I decided to sell that house and get a divorce.”

Thach Chanty said she no longer cares about how others judge her for divorcing to escape violence and focus on her sons.

“Initially, when I contemplated my divorce, I cried and sometimes even considered ending my life,” she said. “But now, I have let go of those thoughts and am living my normal life, driven by my desire to do everything for my kids.”