Gender and Land Rights Database


Customary norms, religious beliefs and social practices that influence gender-differentiated land rights

- The Chbab Srey, the traditional code of conduct for women, is taught in schools as a “matter of national identity” and influences relations between men and women (13). According to the Chbab Srey, women are advised to be patient and submissive within the family. Women who behave improperly towards their husband are told they will encounter misfortunes; even when battered, wives should resign themselves in consideration for traditional customs (26).

- Prior to marriage, daughters live under the strict control of their parents. Parents select the partner for marriage and make all the arrangements. Due to the focus of women’s main role as caregivers, daughters receive less education and often only complete primary school, while sons are provided with more opportunities for studying (22).

- As a consequence of their subordinate status within the household, the majority of women leave decisions related to the property to their husbands, who are considered the heads of the family (22). Therefore, men may sell land without the wives’ consent (13).

- Additionally, in case of divorce, the woman is traditionally held responsible for the separation (26) and may lose her land rights (13).

Traditional authorities and customary institutions

- The mephum, village chief, is an administrative authority within the village, although his position is less regarded than in the past (26). In ancient times, the village chief supervised all village activities. After the war, the role of the village chief became more political and today the village chief is the local representative of the main political party.

The village chief is responsible for setting up puk, small groups of three to five people, who distribute plots of land and deal with internal issues (26).

- The mekrom, or group leader, is the lowest administrative authority. Initially, the mekrom was appointed to set up work groups in rural areas and today his role has almost disappeared especially in the cities. In remote areas, however, the mekrom remains the first proximity authority that people contact in case of problems. At times of unrest or during election periods, the mekrom’s role may be reactivated both in rural and urban areas (26). 

- The mekhum, commune chief, supervises several village chiefs. He has an office and holds legal powers (26).

- The Chas Tum, the elders, are considered authorities within the community, although they do not play as an important a role as in the past, due to the fact that the dominant political party grants more authority to the appointed village chief. Moreover, the years of war have contributed to the erosion of the social fabric disrupting traditional social behaviour founded on the respect for the elders (26).

- In large families, especially in Sino-Khmer ones, the head of the family plays an important role and his authority is recognized as that of a common patriarch (26).

- The acar or masters of ceremonies hold an important position in society. They are intermediaries between the population and the Buddhist monks and are responsible for the organization of religious ceremonies. Acar are well respected and play an important role in the management of local disputes (26).

Inheritance/succession de facto practices

Traditionally, ownership of property among the rural Khmer was vested in the nuclear family. Descent and inheritance are bilateral. Children theoretically inherit equally from their parents, but in practice the oldest child might inherit more.

Each of the spouses might bring inherited land into the family.

Wills, when present, are usually oral (27).

Discrepancies/gaps between statutory and customary laws

- Although Article 45(2) of the Constitution states the men and women are equal in all fields, the Chbab Srey, the traditional code of conduct for women, by reinforcing the belief of women’s inferior status within the family, promotes inequality in all aspects of women’s family and social life (28).

- The Land Law, 2001 provides for joint land titles for husbands and wives; in practice, however, such rights are not recognised due to traditional rules that consider women as having a subordinate role within the family. As a matter of fact, women often need their husbands’ permission to include their names on land titles (13). 

- Although Article 66 of the Land Law, 2001 states that a person who is in joint ownership shall not sell the property without the consent of the co-owner, in practice, however, men sell the land without their wives’ consent (13).

- Although Article 32 of the Law on Marriage and Family, 1989 which is still in force, states that “a wife and husband have equal rights to use, obtain benefits and manage joint property”, traditionally, married women leave all decisions related to property to their husbands and do not to claim their right to be a shareholder of joint property. As a result, when a divorce occurs, women lose their rights to joint property (22).

Sources: numbers in brackets (*) refer to sources displayed in the Bibliography