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Cambodia Table of Contents

Cambodia

Families

The birth of a child is a happy event for the family. According to traditional beliefs, however, confinement and childbirth expose the family, and especially the mother and the child to harm from the spirit world. A woman who dies in childbirth--crosses the river (chhlong tonle) in Khmer is believed to become an evil spirit. In traditional Khmer society, a pregnant woman respects a number of food taboos and avoids certain situations. These traditions remain in practice in rural Cambodia, but they have become weakened in urban areas.

No extensive information exists on birth control or on the use of contraceptives in Cambodia. Before the Khmer Rouge takeover, no organizations in Cambodia were known to be concerned with family planning. Traditional Khmer families were normally smaller than Chinese or Vietnamese families; the desired number of children was five. Reports suggest that several methods of contraception are currently available in Cambodia and that these are practiced in the PRK (see Public Health , this ch.). A recent study of Cambodian women in France reported that 91 percent of the sample wished to use some method of birth control and that 74 percent knew of at least one method. The most common methods used in that group were the oral contraceptive pill and some form of sterilization. It is not known to what extent the attitudes of this group reflect those of Cambodian women in general.

A Cambodian child may be nursed until he or she is between two and four years of age. Up to the age of three or four, the child is given considerable physical affection and freedom. There is little corporal punishment. After reaching the age of about four, children are expected to feed and bathe themselves and to control their bowel functions. Children around five years of age also may be expected to help look after younger siblings. Children's games emphasize socialization or skill rather than winning and losing.

Most children begin school when they are seven or eight. By the time they reach this age, they are familiar with the society's norms of politeness, obedience, and respect toward their elders and toward Buddhist monks. The father at this time begins his permanent retreat into a relatively remote, authoritarian role. By age ten, a girl is expected to help her mother in basic household tasks; a boy knows how to care for the family's livestock and can do farm work under the supervision of older males.

In precommunist days, parents exerted complete authority over their children until the children were married, and the parents continued to maintain some control well into the marriage. Punishment was meted out sparingly, but it might have involved physical contact. Age difference was strictly recognized. The proper polite vocabulary was used in the precommunist period, and special generational terms for "you" continued to be used in the late 1980s. Younger speakers had to show respect to older people, including siblings, even if their ages differed by only a few minutes.

Between the ages of seven and nineteen, but most commonly between the ages of eleven and nineteen, a boy may become a temple servant and go on to serve a time as a novice monk. Having a son chosen for such a position is a great honor for the parents, and earns the individual son much merit (see Religion , this ch.).

Formerly, and perhaps still in some rural areas, a ceremony marked the entrance of a girl into puberty. Upon the onset of menstruation, a girl would participate in a ritual called chol mlup (entering the shadow). Certain foods were taboo at this time, and she would be isolated from her family for a period of a few days to six months. After the period of seclusion, she was considered marriageable.

Adolescent children usually play with members of the same sex. The main exception to this occurs during festivals, especially happy ones such as the New Year Festival, when boys and girls take part in group games. Young people then have the opportunity to begin looking for future mates. Virginity is highly valued in brides, and premarital sex is deplored. The girl who becomes pregnant out of wedlock brings shame to her family.

The choice of a spouse is a complex one for the young male, and it may involve not only his parents and his friends, as well as those of the young woman, but also a matchmaker. A young man can decide on a likely spouse on his own and then ask his parents to arrange the marriage negotiations, or the young person's parents may make the choice of spouse, giving the child little to say in the selection. In theory, a girl may veto the spouse her parents have chosen.

Courtship patterns differ between rural and urban Khmer. Attitudes in the larger cities have been influenced by Western ideas of romantic love that do not apply in the countryside. A man usually marries between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five, a girl between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two. Marriage between close blood relatives is forbidden. After a spouse has been selected, a go-between meets with the parents and broaches the subject of marriage. Then each family will investigates the other to make sure its child is marrying into a good family. When both sides agree to the marriage and presents have been exchanged and accepted, the families consult an achar to set the wedding date. In rural areas, there is a form of bride-service; that is, the young man may take a vow to serve his prospective father-in-law for a period of time.

The traditional wedding is a long and colorful affair. Formerly it lasted three days, but in the 1980s it more commonly lasted a day and a half. The ceremony begins in the morning at the home of the bride and is directed by the achar. Buddhist priests offer a short sermon and recite prayers of blessing. Parts of the ceremony involve ritual hair cutting, tying cotton threads soaked in holy water around the bride's and groom's wrists, and passing a candle around a circle of happily married and respected couples to bless the union. After the wedding, a banquet is held. In the city, the banquet is held at a restaurant; in the country, it is held in a temporary shelter and is prepared by the two families. Newlyweds traditionally move in with the wife's parents and may live with them up to a year, until they can build a new house nearby. These patterns changed drastically under the communists. The Khmer Rouge divided families and separated the men from the women. The father, mother, and children frequently were separated for many months. A man and woman often did not have time to consummate a marriage, and sexual relations were limited by long separations. Extramarital relations and even flirtations between young people were heavily punished.

Divorce is legal, relatively easy to obtain, but not common. Divorced persons are viewed with some disapproval, and they are not invited to take part in the blessing of a newlywed couple. Some of the grounds for divorce are incompatibility, prolonged absence without good reason, abandonment by either partner, refusal of the husband to provide for the family, adultery, immoral conduct, and refusal, for more than a year, to permit sexual intercourse. A magistrate may legalize the divorce. Each spouse retains whatever property he or she brought into the marriage. Property acquired jointly is divided equally. Divorced persons may remarry, but the woman must wait ten months. Custody of minor children is usually given to the mother. Both parents continue to have an obligation to contribute financially toward the rearing and education of the child.

In theory a man may have multiple wives if he can afford them, but this is rare in practice; the first wife may veto the taking of a second wife. Concubinage also exists, although it is more frequent in the cities. While second wives have certain legal rights, concubines have none.

As the married couple moves through life they have children, nurture and train them, educate them, and marry them off. When they become too old to support themselves, they may invite the youngest child's family to move in and to take over running the household. At this stage in their lives, they enjoy a position of high status, they help care for grandchildren, and they devote more time in service to the wat (temple).

Death is not viewed with the great outpouring of grief common to Western society; it is viewed as the end of one life and as the beginning of another life that one hopes will be better. Buddhist Khmer usually are cremated, and their ashes are deposited in a stupa in the temple compound. A corpse is washed, dressed, and placed in a coffin, which may be decorated with flowers and with a photograph of the deceased. White pennant-shaped flags, called "white crocodile flags," outside a house indicate that someone in that household has died. A funeral procession consisting of an achar, Buddhist monks, members of the family, and other mourners accompanies the coffin to the crematorium. The spouse and the children show mourning by shaving their heads and by wearing white clothing. Relics such as teeth or pieces of bone are prized by the survivors, and they are often worn on gold chains as amulets.

Data as of December 1987


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