We’ve had enough

A person watches The Voice Cambodia finalist San Sreylai perform on their smartphone on the day she was killed by her estranged husband in an upscale neighbourhood in Phnom Penh.
A person watches The Voice Cambodia finalist San Sreylai perform on their smartphone on the day she was killed by her estranged husband in an upscale neighbourhood in Phnom Penh. Heng Chivoan

On Monday, shocking news broke across social media: San Sreylai, a finalist on The Voice Cambodia, had been shot dead in an apparent murder-suicide by her estranged husband, Chey Rin. While such a high-profile and public murder by shooting is rare in Cambodia, the scourge of intimate partner violence is not. Reactions to the shooting on social media and in the press posed the valid question of whether enough is being done to protect women who face harassment, threats or violence from current and former partners.

How many women in Phnom Penh and throughout the provinces actually know what a protection order is and how to obtain one? And if they do seek justice through the formal legal system, how many face discrimination from their families and community? This is before considering the almost inevitable economic hardship faced by women who leave abusive relationships; women’s designated roles as unpaid care providers or low-income earners within a patriarchal capitalist system that undervalues women’s labour means that while leaving their partner might save their lives, it often costs them their livelihoods.

And yet, discussion of both intimate partner violence (inside our homes) and violence committed by strangers in public spaces (as we move through our cities and towns) is so often centred around women’s actions. If a woman stays in an abusive relationship, and is killed, we hear: Why didn’t she leave? Women’s decisions to stay or to leave are used, however subtly, to justify the violence they are subjected to. But as the heartbreaking case of Sreylai shows us, leaving is not a failsafe defence against a controlling, violent man with intent to harm. Similarly, if a woman is assaulted on her way home from work, we hear: Why was she out late by herself? What was she wearing? The time for these questions, those that ask women what precautions we took, or “failed” to take, in order to protect ourselves, is over.

Just this week, some 12 million women around the world have shared their personal experiences of sexual violence and harassment on social media via the hashtag #MeToo. This viral social movement undoubtedly achieved its stated goal, to “show the magnitude of the problem by speaking out”. It showed that this type of violence does not discriminate between social backgrounds or across borders; it is not caused by our clothes, our lack of sobriety or our decision to stay in or leave relationships. It is caused by a deep-seated sense of entitlement that so many men (not just the “monsters” we read about in the press) feel over women’s bodies. It is caused by unequal power dynamics, by the sexualisation and objectification that we as women experience for much of our lives, and in Sreylai’s case, even after death.

For those of us who work in women’s rights, we read about cases of harassment, abuse and violence on a daily basis. At times we can feel almost inured to the stories we hear. But the news that indecent photographs of Sreylai had been allegedly taken and circulated among police examining her body at the murder scene was one that shook many of us to the core. Not only had she been murdered by someone that she had once trusted, but it seems that even after death women’s rights over their own bodies can be violated.

We welcome the investigation that has been called by Major General Chuon Sovann, and his prompt and strongly worded denouncement of the behaviour. This is a promising sign that this type of violence is being taken seriously by those who are charged with protecting our rights. We hope that an investigation into the police conduct at the scene is coupled with broader actions to prevent the violence that cost Sreylai her life; from steps to ensuring that the justice system treats every case of gender-based violence with gravity, to improving access to services for survivors including hotlines, protection orders and crisis accommodation, to making cities and towns safer for women to live in and enjoy through improved services and infrastructure like street-lighting. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it’s time for us to stop asking how women who are abused or killed failed to “protect” themselves, and time to start asking how we can challenge and change the behaviours of men that lead to women needing such protection.

The Safe Cities for Women Coalition is made up of women’s rights organisations campaigning together for an end to violence against women in Cambodia.