Does New Marriage Law Protect – Or Patronize – Cambodia’s Women?
Western men, shockingly enough, like Cambodian women, and a fair number of male expats relocate here for reasons more related to the ready availability of sexy ladies then cultural learnin’. But such relations aren’t always of the casual variety. Often, Western men do marry their Khmer girlfriends. And often, these Western men are exponentially older than their new brides. (I recall a time when I saw an older gentleman who could have passed for a reincarnation of Robert E. Lee leaning upon a stunning 18 year old Khmer girl for support.)
But Cambodians and expatriates alike have long disapproved of the notion of geriatrics trotting around with fit young ladies, and last month, the Cambodian government weighed in. On March 1, the government passed a brand-new marriage law, with the included language:
No foreign male over the age of 50 can marry a Cambodian woman. Further, a foreign man cannot marry a Cambodian woman if his income is less than $2,250 a month.
According to the Cambodian government, the law intends to protect women from foreign trafficking and the depredations of less-than-reputable foreign men. Koy Kuong of the Cambodian Foreign Ministry noted that marriages between younger women and older men are “inappropriate,” and added that a foreign man needs to have enough money in the bank so that “Cambodian women can live a decent life.”
Obviously, there’s some logic lurking behind this new law. High-profile bride-trafficking cases have made the news here in recent years, and foreign men maltreated impoverished and desperate young women, many of whom may marry for necessity rather then actual love.
The law sounds good on paper. But, according to Ms. Kek Galeru, the leader of local rights group Licadho, the rules technically restrict women in a way that does not in any way apply to men. For one thing, the stipulations do not exist for Western women marrying Cambodian males, though I have not (yet) noticed a stampede of older women getting hitched to young Cambodian hotties.
The law is patronizing to women in a number of other ways. First, it assumes that no woman of her own free agency would choose to marry a man over 50 – thereby denying women the right to make their own choices, whatever motivation may lurk beneath them. Further, the law makes the additional assumption that no older Cambodian woman might choose to get herself hitched to a foreign guy of similar age. No heart-broken widows in “love” with equally world-weary French, Belgian, or Nigerian men need apply.
And then, there’s the money thing. A monthly income of $2,250 a month is reasonable enough in the West, but it’s downright impressive here in Cambodia, a nation where even a government worker is likely to pull in no more than $40 a month. It seems highly unlikely that a Cambodian woman would enter a life of destitution if she wound up married to a guy making less than that (curiously random) amount.
The numbers game also conflicts with a couple of uncomfortably sexist concepts – 1, that a young woman couldn’t possibly support herself with her own income, 2, that Cambodian women (under the age of 50, anyway) are a commodity that can be sold to an appropriately wealthy bidder.
Further, as Ms. Kek Galeru points out in a recent Cambodia Daily opinion piece, the best way to protect the welfare of Cambodia’s women is by means of education, not by implementing patronizing laws. As she points out, “Actively promoting women’s self-development and awareness is the only way to prevent at-risk women from falling into situations where they are treated like commercial assets.” As it stands right now, Cambodia has made some efforts towards improving women’s access to education – but not nearly enough. I like Ms. Kek Galeru’s suggestion, in the op-ed, that “the government could grant a significant number of scholarships to deserving girls whose parents are unable to pay for their studies.” That’s a sight more forward-thinking than focusing on marriage prospects.
The final nail in the new law’s coffin? It’s mostly unenforceable. A determined not-so-young or not-so-rich couple wishing to enter the bonds of legal matrimony need only to nip over to Thailand to get the job done. Further, human traffickers or brokers in mail order brides are probably perfectly able to show that they have the required dough. (As long as they’re under 50, of course.)
Ultimately, the new law sounds good on paper, but, when analyzed further, exemplifies a poorly thought out and exceptionally blunt way of handling Cambodia’s horribly real problems with human trafficking and the exploitation of women. Cambodian women could use some governmental protection, but they don’t need to be denied agency – or treated like commodities – in the process.
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