Legislating morality in Cambodia
No country for old men
Apr 4th 2011, 9:04 by B.B. | PHNOM PENH
THE Cambodian foreign ministry announced last month that foreign men who are older than 50—or who earn less than $2,550 per month—are henceforth to be banned from marrying Cambodian women. “We want people getting married to look like proper couples” and not appear “like a grandfather and a granddaughter,” as Koy Kuong, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, told the English-language daily The Phnom Penh Post. Oddly a foreign man older than 50 is prohibited from marrying even Cambodian women of their age or older. Lonesome and indigent foreign women might take heart to note another discrepancy: they are still allowed to marry Cambodian men.
This is not the first time the government has imposed a marriage ban between foreign men and Cambodian women. Reports about South Korean men taking brides from Cambodia (and other South-East Asian countries) by means of human-trafficking rings—which essentially had enslaved the women they styled as wives—prompted the government to ban foreign marriages temporarily in 2008. Last year that ban was reinstated, though only as it applies to South Korean men.
But rights groups say the new ban is an ineffective—and potentially illegal—solution to ongoing concerns about the welfare of Cambodian women. For one, the ban doesn’t apply to couples who are married overseas, which limits its ability to prevent marriages brokered by human traffickers. And the salary floor, which the foreign ministry says is intended to guarantee Cambodian women a decent standard of living, prevents the vast majority of foreigners working here—including university teachers, NGO staff and journalists—from tying the knot with local women, unless they do so overseas. (As a point of reference: the average Cambodian male earns less than $100 per month. Even in the capital, Phnom Penh, where housing and merchandise is relatively costly, a monthly salary of several hundred dollars buys what is considered a middle-class existence.)
The foreign ministry insists that its marriage directive is legally binding even though it did not pass through parliament. But the directive violates the right of consenting adults to marry and it undermines the country’s legal system by circumventing the proper legislative channels, said Mu Sochua, an opposition parliamentarian who used to serve as the minister of women’s affairs.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the directive falls in line with similar, misguided steps by the government to “police culture” in the name of promoting a better society. The same groups that find fault in the government’s meddling with marriage note that police have recently taken to enforcing a ban on prostitution by conducting violent raids against street-based sex workers, in some cases resorting to rape as a means of intimidation. Other government officials have concerned themselves with confiscating magazines with marginally racy photos and blocking access to a single website of erotic Cambodian-style artwork. Not that there isn’t plenty of work for them to do. “If they want to protect Cambodian women from abuse, then they should address the corrupt officials taking bribes who allow the trafficking rings to thrive,” said Ou.
Pung Chhiv Kek, the president of a local rights groups called Licadho, agrees that that actual abuses against Cambodian women deserve more attention from officials but she and emphasises that their efforts should be directed more effectively. Licadho and other NGOs try to highlight the systemic problems that plague the handling of rape cases in Cambodia. As Amnesty International reported last year, police frequently accept bribes from rapists, including those who abuse children, in exchange for ignoring a victim’s complaint or forcing an out-of-court settlement. Likewise a draft law that was intended to curb acid attacks, of which women are typically targets, has languished in government committees for a year. It’s not that laws against rape and other violence against women do not exist. But it can seem that the excitement about censorship and May-December marriages has a way of distracting the responsible agencies. “If the government wants to protect women, then it is better to strengthen the implementation of [these] laws,” Ms Pung says. “Regulating morality is not an effective way to protect women.”
In recent years Cambodia has been seeking increased investment from foreign countries while at the same time railing against the presence of outside influences. Last year the government warned foreign embassies and NGOs against raising criticisms against the country’s internal affairs. “Cambodia is not a BANANA REPUBLIC,” the foreign ministry said in a letter issued to embassies. “We cannot accept any negative criticism,” foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong added at the time, revealing no sense of humour to the Deutsche Presse-Agentur. The government even threatened to expel the UN’s country director and head of its human-rights office head after they urged it to allow more input from civil society and donors.
This may not be the ultimate answer to the problems of trafficking and abuse in Cambodia but perhaps it is headed in the right direction. Eric