Phim Sreyda – a pseudonym given by the author – has never experienced happiness or positive feelings in her family. The two happiest parts of her homelife are when her father is absent and when she leaves to go to school.
The reason Sreyda feels this way is because her father is an alcoholic who frequently used violence – both physical and emotional – against his family. This has left the 18 year-old with deep emotional scars. Despite her mental health crisis, she is trying as hard as she can to study and improve her lot in life.
The young woman, who lives in Boeung Tumpun I commune’s Chamroeun Phal village of the capital’s Meanchey district, has been studying and receiving support from a Christian organisation in Australia since she was 6 or 7.
This year she is in the 12th grade, her final year of high school. She studies at a private school near Stung Meanchey Market, and her tuition fees are covered by the organisation. Although her classmates are close to graduation – after 12 years of studying together – she remains distant, likely due to the circumstances of her life at home.
She explained that her parents were very poor. She did not have a motorbike or bicycle to get to school on, and so had to rely on rides from friends and classmates. Sometimes she missed days of school because nobody offered to pick her up. Nonetheless, she was not prepared to give up on her education and would strive to keep learning, she said.
“My parents’ hardships and poverty already present challenges, but what I find really difficult to deal with are the harsh words of my father,” she said.
Having experienced the bitterness of domestic violence, Sreyda said that when she graduated she would like to train as a counsellor on the subject. She was also considering teaching as a pathway to helping her community.
Her mother, 50, said Sreyda is one of her six children. Sreyda has one elder brother and four younger sisters. Her older brother dropped out of school to work and earn money to support the family.
Her husband is a motorcycle taxi driver, while she works as a cleaner. She said their home was an unhappy place because of her husband’s drinking. When he arrived home drunk, they often argued. Sometimes he beat her, she tearfully added.
She said commune police had spoken to her husband about his violent behaviour, and he seemed to have calmed down somewhat. Nevertheless, he was still drinking, so the family remained on tenterhooks, waiting for the cycle of violence to begin again.
“Although he seems less angry, he is still not contributing to my children’s tuition fees. My salary is very low, but I share it with Sreyda and pay what I can. I have no spending money. I want to buy Sreyda a motorbike to ride to school, but cannot afford to,” she said.
A teacher from one of the Christian organisation’s centres, who asked not to be named, said that at present in his district three or four families that he was aware of had violent fathers. The centre has no role other than providing education and knowledge to the children and donating food, he added.
Buk Panha Vichet, director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Centre, said domestic violence is an issue that needs to be addressed. Traditionally, Cambodian society valued a man who, after marriage, seemed to have authority in the family. If he is well educated, he is likely to be a better leader of the family unit.
However, if he lacks leadership skills and does not behave well – especially through harmful actions like consuming too much alcohol – it can often lead to violence, traditionally the act of a weak man.
“Women who are victims must be strong enough to report violence. Some women were victims, but felt that violence was acceptable, or that she could tolerate it. Often a woman who has been abused over a long period of time will file a complaint to the local authorities, who will take action. Women need to have the courage to protect themselves, no one can help them if they won’t help themselves,” she said.
She said that women who have been abused should not have to hide and should seek help. Unfortunately, many families considered domestic violence a family affair, and would be embarrassed if a complaint was made. Changing the behavior of every person who is affected by domestic violence would take time, she acknowledged.
She told The Post that there were no official figures available, so it was impossible to determine whether domestic violence had decreased or increased in recent years.
“We only know violence has been committed after a woman reports it to us. If 10 women approach us, then that is 10 cases recorded, sure, but we do not know how many women remain silent. Whether there has been an increase or decrease will only be clear once we have a clear basis for nationwide data generation,” she added.
Meas Sa Im, vice-president of Women and Children of rights group ADHOC, told The Post that being raised in a violent family environment has severely detrimental effects on the mental health of children.