In America, every 15 seconds a woman is beaten by her husband or domestic partner. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 -- more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. I always thought these figures were shocking, especially since they have been slow to change over the years.
However, I was even more stunned when I recently learned that 30 percent of women in Cambodia suffer from domestic violence. Every third woman in Cambodia gets abused? How could that be?
I put this question to Erika Keaveney, the executive director of the SoCal based non-profit Lotus Outreach, which has been working in the poorest regions of Cambodia and other parts of Asia for almost two decades. "Many women in Cambodia don't even know that they have rights," she explained. "Divorce carries an enormous social stigma in Cambodia, and so many woman literally have no way to escape a dangerous situation."
But she also told me the story of Goong Mouey, a beneficiary of the organizations's Consoling Through Counseling project, which highlights just how far a small amount can go to help women escape from domestic violence.
Mouey may have survived decades of war and genocide in Cambodia, but she didn't emerge unscathed. The Khmer Rouge completely shut down the public education system in the late 1970s, and 90 percent of all teachers were summarily executed. Mouey is a part of an entire generation of women to grow up completely illiterate, and with little to no economic opportunity. Escaping her abusive, alcoholic husband and unable to provide for her five young children, she turned the children over to an orphanage for two years. "This was especially painful for me," she shares, "but I had run out of options."
Since coming into contact with the counseling and reintegration program that was supported by Dining for Women, the tables have turned for Mouey. After spending some time at Lotus Outreach's safe shelter, Mouey received $20 in start-up support along with a $120 small business grant and now runs a highly successful vegetable grocery business near Poipet city. Her business allows her to earn about $50 per day -- over 20 times the per capita income in Cambodia -- and she has since been able to resume caring for her children.
"I did have a small vegetable stall earlier but it was not enough to live on. The grant allowed me to offer five times as much variety and volume," Mouey shares. "Now I can afford pretty much whatever the children need to be well nourished." Mouey's 16 year-old daughter, Srey Mom, pipes in as well: "Previously I didn't have the money I needed to pay for school tuition or buy food and medicine, and now we do."
Because divorce carries such an onerous social stigma in Cambodian society, Mouey opted to try again when her husband came skulking back -- to her vastly improved financial situation. This time, however, he did not dare to abuse her physically any longer. "I control the money in the family now," Mouey says proudly. "Though he is verbally aggressive, he no longer hits me." Recognizing the cultural factors working against sufferers of domestic violence in Cambodia, Lotus Outreach hopes to implement men's anger management courses in the near future to give women who do return to abusive marriages the very best chance at a safe, healthy life.
With a $39,000 grant this year from Dining for Women, Lotus Outreach will help dozens of families like Mouey's get back on their feet through shelter assistance, start-up financial support, vocational training and small business grants.