Marriage and Divorce in Cambodia

A HOUSE DIVIDED

A close friend of mine is heading to a divorce court in Siem Reap in 30 minutes time. This is a sad time both for him and for his wife and both have used SOBBING emojis in recent correspondence. Both are hurting.  They have three sweet children.

How does divorce work in Cambodia?  In fact the laws are reasonably progressive, and while divorce-rates have been extremely low in Cambodia the laws provide reasonable protection to both parties who are generally entitled to half the matrimonial property each.  In fact this is widely understood following an incident in 2008 when an estranged husband sawed their matrimonial homestead in half and carted it away.

For a detailed discussion on the subject: http://cambodialpj.org/article/legal-and-gender-issues-of-marriage-and-divorce-in-cambodia/

Whether the laws are fair or not, women – especially in poor rural areas – are likely to be disadvantaged simply because they cannot afford the expense of seeking legal advice, and because traditions (which frown on divorce,) still over-ride current law.

However my friends are educated, and I hope they both leave on peaceful, fair terms that protect the children too.

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Meet Khan Ke -a desire to be an English teacher.

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Monasteries have many roles in Cambodian society and while they are centers for spiritual teaching, they also help alleviate families that are struggling – for example poor rural families. A son may live at the monastery and save the family the burden of another mouth to feed.

That’s what Savong did when he was young and it is worthwhile seeing how his story has come full circle. Ke, pictured above shows a keenness to learn English and, at the same time widen his potential prospects.

When I read these stories my own heart goes out to the students. Born into poverty, they face a daunting challenge to break that financial drought.

My name is Ke, 27, a grade 10 student of Rokar Buddhist School, latterly living at Rokar Pagoda.  I was born on the 25 of October, 1990, in Roluos village, Roluos commune, Prasat Bakong district, Siem reap province, Cambodia. I have four siblings; my older sister is a fruit seller, selling fruit at Roluos market. I am the third child in my family.

The living standard of my family is hard up at the moment because of low incomes in the family. Every day my parents can earn a little money to sustain the whole family. My older sister always helps my mother to do house work. Every day I study at Buddhist School. After studying at Buddhist school, I spend my time learning English at Savong School Cambodia. I started to learn English at Savong School Cambodia in 2016.

I like English so much so after complete Buddhist school, I want to be an English teacher. I feel so strongly for them because every day they try to work for the whole family. In my spare time, I like reading books and chanting the dharma; I love my parents so much.

Interviewed by: Vann Salas

Student profile – Savong’s School

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Chai Chun lives at the Rokar Monastery just 1km away from Savong’s School. 

My name is Chun, 26, and I am a grade 9 student of Rokar Buddhist School, staying at Rokar Pagoda currently.

I was born on the 9 of March, 1991 in Donteav village, Roluos commune, Bakong district, Siem Reap province, Cambodia. I have 5 siblings. I am the third child in the family. My older sister has married and she has one child.

My father’s name is Mon Thear, 54, and he is a farmer. My mother is Pheak, 52, a housewife looking after the house and the children. My parents try very hard to earn money for me. My grandparents can earn a little money to support the family but my family is poor because there is too little family income.

Every day I learn at Buddhist school; I really miss my family at times. Besides studying time, I take time to study English at Savong School Cambodia. I like English so much; I want to be an IT teacher. I feel real pity for my parents, supporting and taking care of my siblings.

Sometimes my grandparents call on my parents and me and I also feel sad for them because every day they try so hard to work for the whole family. I like chanting the dharma. I love my parents so much. I want to have a better life in the future.

Thank you Vann Salas for interviewing Chai Chun and translating.

 

 

Lunch bar conversation

It has been a while since I have written, but I’m still here and still thinking each day of Cambodia.

The other day I received an unsolicited email message from a graduate student in Cambodia who wanted to say than you for having helped him (one way and another through employment and sponsorship,) get his degree.  What a wonderful thing to receive that message.

Then 48 hours later I popped into a lunchbar in Ellerslie, Auckland,  where I had a chat with the owner, a Cambodian, who knows about my involvement and commitment to Cambodia, and who has been weighing up how she, also, may assist her mother country.

It was a lively conversation as we shared experiences and shared also our dismay at how the burgeoning middle-class of Cambodia is ignoring the welfare of so many fellow citizens.  Cambodia has precious little safety net.  “But to ignore the poor just isn’t true Buddhism,” my friend said. She is going to be very choosy about who she supports in Cambodia – opting to help people in a specific village in the South.  She is worried by corruption, and the tendency by some people to grasp money intended for a whole village,  to keep for themselves. The gifts for monasteries are supposed to be distributed to the poor, she explained with a sigh. But that’s people.

But I wonder how many people over the years have been burned by this kind of greed that diverts a stream of goodwill and dollars into the pockets of the greedy.  Cambodia doesn’t make itself an easy country to love.

Debt and poverty in Cambodia

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The photo of offerings, above, is one I took during Pchum Benh in 2015 near Siem Reap. I’ve been fascinated time and again by how consumer goods are such a price in Cambodia, relative to incomes, that cigarettes are often sold individually, at least in rural markets, rather than in packs. When you choose to buy one cigarette at a time, there is a thin line between solvency and debt.

I’ve been considering lately how poor Cambodians can climb out of poverty. There is a universal desire to get ahead, but there are no easy avenues to wealth for the poor to travel. Lenders who might advance some capital, for example through a MFI or micro-finance institution are not just lending against the ability of a borrower to give their business venture their very all; they are also lending against the high tide of risks faced by lower income people who live, daily, on the precipice of disaster. A crop failure. A stolen motorbike. An illness. Westerners are well insulated from such set-backs, we have insurances or sufficient economic resilience to take these things in our stride.

MFIs also face another risk – and that is the prospect that the borrower, desperate to raise enough capital to start a thriving business, already has loans with other micro-finance organisations. The risk isn’t about dishonesty so much as about financial literacy. The hopeful entrepreneur can only see the upside without appreciating the very high risks they face.

This is causing concern for micro-finance institutions of which there are around 45 registered organisations that are signatories to a shared set of operating principles and are members of a well-respected industry association, the Cambodia Micro-finance Association.  Together these MFIs have lent to 1.8 million borrowers, which is around one in every five adults aged 22+ – a staggering number.

Or it may be less staggering, given that a significant proportion of borrowers appear to have loans from more than one MFI (which is a practice actively discouraged by the lenders themselves.) Some of these are savvy borrowers, calling into question the idea of ‘one client: one loan.’

But not all borrowers are in this boat. Some are taking out extra loans because they are having trouble meeting existing debts.

Just as troubling, a report cited in The Guardian in March 2015, conducted by the Institute of Development, found that half the borrowers had taken such measures as eating less, or eating poor quality food in order to meet their repayments. Talk about a thin line between solvency and debt.

MFIs are adapting to the changing marketplace, but a general conclusion drawn from a 2007 Stanford Social Innovation Review study, by Aneel Karnani, into the effectiveness of micro-finance concluded that the service works for those above the poverty line, but often fails – deeply – when it comes to serving the needs of those below the line.

If the MFIs are adjusting to the market, and serving a growing class of more financially savvy customers (only a 15 years ago banks were having trouble attracting retail customers who had lost everything under previous regimes,) there is another problem in the sector: the unregistered lenders of which, there are estimated to be 60 in operation, and that’s not counting the traditional pawn-brokers in Cambodia.

In fact the Government’s financial strategy blueprint Financial Sector Development Strategy 2011-2020 ,expressly tasks the Cambodian Micro-finance Association (CMA) with bringing rogue operators under their umbrella and developing stronger consumer-friendly rules with which to self-govern members as well as introducing financial literacy programs to help educate the public.

The regulation of pawn brokers and money lenders is a harder task, but the Financial Sector strategy has these operators in their sights. Again there will be a focus on developing rules that help protect borrowers from over-zealous lending, or the onerous penalties of repayment failure. A frequent practice right now is to use farmland as collateral, and if a borrower gets behind, well, they lose everything.

Getting ahead usually requires capital. Unfortunately for the very poor, the best lenders may be of some benefit, but the marketplace is full of dangers. I think Risk is a concept about which every student needs to be taught. Some education may help keep some more people on the right side of that thin line.

Poverty porn. It’s not okay.

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Big applause to of the Phnom Penh Post for her article this last week on ‘poverty porn.’ and the murky ethics of poverty fundraising.  She wrote when Weh Yeoh, the director of OIC Cambodia, tweeted the images from an Australian fundraising ad that portrayed young children, Cambodian, as trafficked and homeless. The photos positively rubbed the readers’ noses in the children’s shame.“I’m pretty sure this breaches all kinds of standards around positive portrayal of children,” he wrote.logo_ppp It turned out the children in the adverts were child models, dirtied up and paid to look like victims – and the fundraising agency said the imagery had kickstarted a very successful fundraising campaign. They were angry to be called out by the media, and went on to attack critic via twitter, arguing that donors don’t respond to images of happy, employed children.

On that front I disagree, and I base my opinion on market research I’ve expressly carried out for the charitable sector which tested various children-need-your-help scenarios – without pictures.

But that’s hardly the issue. The main focus of the criticism was about ‘poverty porn’ and the portrayal of disadvantaged children for gain – whether charitable or otherwise.

“The ’80s are calling – they want their pics of fly-covered starving African children back,” wrote Celia Boyd of Phnom Penh’s SHE Investments, on Twitter, in response to the recent advertising.  “Just because it raises money, it doesn’t make it right,” said fellow Australian Leigh Mathews, of Re/Think Orphanage.  (I’m citing the PPP piece here.)

The ethics of how we use images of poverty is a blurry topic. Last week I taught a local high-school class in New Zealand and we discussed just this issue, and Exhibit A were a stack of slides I’d taken – photos of poor people in Cambodia.  Creepy or okay? I asked.

The students were really clear. If I knew the person being photographed, and if I asked for permission – then it was okay. “You have to be respectful.” one student told me.

What about if it was a poor person whom I saw on the street, or near a temple where I was taking photographs?  “Then don’t zoom in on them,” was the answer.

The core principle is respect, privacy and dignity.  I don’t buy that the portrayal of victims, whether actual or made-up, is the right way to go.

Anyone have any thoughts on the issue?