Bou Somaly, a 43-year-old mother of one, recently divorced her husband. In the process, she lost her son. Phnom Penh Municipal Court awarded custody of the boy, La Sany, to his father, in what Bou Somaly says was an arbitrary decision.
Bou Somaly, who has filed a complaint with the rights group Licadho seeking help in her case, says she was asked to bring her son to the court. She did, and when La Sany saw his father, he ran to him and hugged him.
“The judge asked him, ‘Do you like your father?’” Bou Somaly recalled in a phone interview recently.
When the boy nodded, the court gave him over to his dad.
It may be too late for Bou Somaly to regain custody of her son, but she says other women might be spared such separation under a new draft law for separations and other disputes.
The drafted Family Dispute Law clarifies divorce procedures in the courts. It allows property to be divvied out by judges, or seized before it is sold off.
It also clarifies how the courts should determine child custody.
“The mother has the right to look after a four-year-old,” Bou Somaly said.
According to the new law, the courts should award a child to the mother up to the age of six, about the time he or she enters school, or the age when a child “knows right from wrong.”
Bou Somaly said she hopes to have a chance to appeal her case under those rules.
The draft was passed by the National Assembly April 26 and has yet to be signed into law. It must also be promulgated through the courts. But already it has some women hoping they will get a fair shake in a system that is typically skewed toward husbands and fathers.
Lam Arun, a 31-year-old mother of two who has filed for divorce at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, to leave her allegedly abusive husband, says she wants to have a hearing under the new law. With it, she hopes to have custody of her children and a fair share of the couple’s property.
“The new law will help provide justice to my case,” she told VOA Khmer as she waited outside court Tuesday.
Meas Sokunthea, a divorce lawyer for the Cambodian Defenders Project, said the new law is better than the past law because it provides “full, clear meaning” for parties and judges.
The law may be just in time, as some evidence points to growing dissatisfaction with divorce proceedings.
In 2009, Licadho received 155 reports from women who felt they’d been treated unfairly in their divorces. In the first three months of this year alone, the group has received 55.
Am Sam Ath, a lead investigator for Licadho, said that under the new law, those numbers could decline.
“The parties in divorces will receive fairness from the new law,” he said. “Because the court has the right to decisions in suspending property sales and can punish someone who violates the court order.”
Thong Saron, a Ratanakkiri provincial judge who has had to make divorce decisions in the past, said this week the new law will “make it comfortable and clear to judges, in order to make decisions in divorce cases more fairly than before.”
The former law had made it difficult for him to make decisions, he said, because Cambodians traditionally keep their money together. Now, he said, the court can confiscate property before either party sells their goods and pockets the money.