Harmonious households

Legal reform is not enough to end violence against women, Katherine Brickell observes.

Despite what Unifem (the UN agency for gender equity) claims have been 20 years of “unprecedented progress” on the issue – including an increase in the number of laws – many women around the world still have no knowledge of their rights and even fewer of how to lay claim to them.

Brickell leads a research team in Cambodia, which has a law (passed in 2005) on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of the Victims.

The law starts by defining its dual purpose as protecting victims of violence, and “preserving the harmony within the households in line with the nation’s good custom and tradition”. While the international development community has been largely successful in shifting violence against women from a private to a societal concern, in Cambodia this message has become distorted. Its societal significance is linked in law to the symbolic value of harmonious households, rather than to women’s wellbeing. Our research shows that this rhetoric is practically difficult for women to manage: they are repeatedly told to reconcile their relationships and not pursue punishment by law. This problem is compounded by persistent ideas in villages that violence against women is a private matter – in Cambodian customary rules, a “fire” – which women have a responsibility not to spread beyond the home.

There it is again. If you prioritize harmony, or unity, or consensus, or “peace” over equality or rights or the wellbeing of a subset of the group or community or movement, then that’s what you get – an arrangement in which the rights of some are sacrificed to the unity of all. Sometimes you have to do that. If there’s a tiger running toward the group, the group needs to unite to deal with the tiger. If there’s an earthquake or tsunami or hurricane, the group needs to work together on rescue and repair. But when there’s not a pressing emergency (and there will always be disagreement about which emergencies are pressing) then unity should not be valued over the rights of everyone. The few should not be expected to ditch their rights for the sake of unity or “harmonious households” forever.


  1. says

    Funny how the harmony thing is interpreted as being broken by women who want to leave or press criminal charges against their husbands, not against the husbands who beat them – violence never struck me as particularly harmonious! Although even in developed countries, it’s the laying claim to existing rights that is frequently the problem, as the emotional abuse that comes before and alongside the physical violence is so shattering to self esteem that women don’t know they can escape, or don’t feel they deserve to.

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