BANGKOK, THAILAND: On the first International Day of the Girl (Oct. 11) and with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (Nov. 25) nearing, women and girls across Asia continue to suffer cruelty and often murder due to deep-rooted social norms.
In patriarchal societies where sons are preferred, there is sex-selective abortion and infanticide, which has left India with only 914 girls for every 1,000 boys, according to 2011 census data. Meanwhile, domestic violence, which is seen as ordinary and is tolerated, destroys the lives of women as well as their children – children like Nik, in the northwestern Cambodian province of Siem Reap.
A few years ago, young Nik used to lie awake at night, waiting for her intoxicated father to walk through the door.
“It was hard to get to sleep because I never knew what would happen when daddy came home,” recalled Nik, now nine years old and the eldest of the family’s three children. “When he hit my mother, I got scared… Sometimes I was afraid that he might hit me as well.”
When her father, Uk Sam, stumbled into the house, Nik would sneak out and hide by a large tree on the other side of the family’s maize field. She returned home when it was quiet again.
Uk Sam did not let his wife, Phal Kea, escape so easily.
“Using physical violence was the logical conclusion to a verbal fight. If we could not agree, I just hit. If I came home late and... wanted to have my way, she always rejected me... I usually just hit to get my way.”
Three to four times a week, or more, the 34-year-old construction worker attacked her.
Plan International helped to bring peace to Phal Kea’s home and family, with the understanding that to improve children’s lives, there needs to be added focus on girls and women, who suffer disproportionately from discrimination that can ruin not only their lives, but also the lives of their children and families.
In Cambodia, Plan works with local partner Project Against Domestic Violence (PADV) through its Family Protection Network Programme to team up with village councils, and municipal and district authorities to resolve domestic violence through counseling, assistance and legal support.
Plan’s programmes to prevent gender-based violence in Asia aim to help girls from conception to birth, through motherhood and beyond.
Bringing peace to a village
Uk Sam once swung a stick at Phal Kea’s head, knocking her unconscious. When she came to, her husband was gone.
“I knew something was wrong because I heard nothing. All sounds were gone. There was a loud ringing sound inside my head, I was dizzy and felt bad.”
Such incidents were once common in their village, according to Uk Sam. There was no shame, no stigma.
“This happens all the time. Not long ago, our neighbor threw their car battery at his wife’s head. She ended up with a skull fracture and had to stay in bed for three months. Her husband had to take care of her.
“She was kept from looking after the house, and he was unable to look after their crops. This is a big problem for a poor family. They become even poorer,” Uk Sam said.
After taking part in PADV’s group sessions, Uk Sam learnt about the fear and insecurity that domestic violence stirs in children, the loss of family income and increased cost of medical care when his wife is injured, as well as worsening poverty.
“I saw the effects in my home – when I returned home, the children would leave the house. They would not talk to me. I did not see this as a problem. I thought children were the responsibility of their mother,” Uk Sam said.
It has been a few years now since Uk Sam hit his wife. The change at home has been dramatic.
“It is better now that he doesn’t hit anymore,” said Nik. “When he comes home drunk these days, he just goes straight to bed.”
Three-year-old Ravy, their youngest child, has grown up happy in a peaceful household. When her father returns home from the construction site, she runs up to meet him, throwing her arms around his neck.
Local authorities say the programme has helped reduce domestic violence in the village by 80%.
“Now, I don’t hear of much serious violence,” said village leader Doung Chhom. “We cannot reduce minor family quarrels, but what I am doing now is encouraging fathers to drink less.”
For the remaining 20%, there are monthly family meetings. Village councils report cases. Police lock up perpetrators for a few days. When released, the men sign a document stating the legal consequences of repeated violence: they may be tried at a provincial court.
“Violence is by far most prevalent in poor families and families where parents lack education,” said deputy district police chief Dek Chorum. “Often, women – the victims of the violence – come to our station to plead for their husbands to be set free. The households depend on the income his work provides. If he is incarcerated, the family starves.”
Let Girls Be Born
Two years ago in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Rani was thrilled when she became pregnant just after her second wedding anniversary.
However, her joy soured after her husband, Ajay – who wanted a small family and preferred a son – pressured her to get a sex determination test. Although India banned such tests in 1994, they are still widely available; triggering further woes for Rani, her results revealed a girl. Ajay and his family pushed Rani to terminate the pregnancy.
Bhagyashri Dengle, the executive director of Plan India, lays the blame squarely on India being a patriarchal society and its citizens’ strong preferences for sons. Plan hopes to change this outlook through the Let Girls Be Born (LGBB) project, launched in 2010.
“We support community intervention and help organise campaign activities like street plays, public art on walls, rallies and candlelight marches,” Dengle said. “We build awareness on the value of girls, and offer counseling for parents who have daughters and are pregnant with another child.”
Rani had met with Plan’s local partners in the LGBB project, and when she and Ajay went for an abortion, Rani had a change of heart and returned home.
She gave birth a few months later to healthy little Munia – with only her father present at the hospital for the delivery. When the baby was only a few months old, Ajay and his parents, still infuriated with Rani, began to harass and abuse her, so she and her daughter left Ajay and moved back to her parents’ home.
Now 20 years old, Rani is separated from Ajay. With legal support from LGBB staff, she has filed a suit against Ajay in court for paternity support for one-year-old Munia.
Dengle says change is afoot, but much more needs to be done.
“Many communities celebrate the birth of a girl... but this being a social issue embedded in societal norms, more than community mobilization is required,” she said. “Only working with the communities may not work. Political will is critical.”