What my internship in Cambodia taught me about law reform

Alessandra Hayward
During her four-week internship at Legal Aid of Cambodia, Alessandra Hayward conducted a situational analysis on forced marriages of minors.

For anyone hoping to work in the sphere of policy or human rights, an internship in a country like Cambodia can be a crucial insight into the practical challenges of implementing law reform.

By Alessandra Hayward
Bachelor of Arts/Laws (Hons)

Over the winter break, I undertook an internship with Legal Aid of Cambodia with support from an ANU College of Law funding grant. I organised this internship through a hopeful email to one of the solicitors, having met the Legal Aid of Cambodia team on the 2018 ANU Law Students’ Society Law in Action: Cambodia Outreach Project.

I spent four weeks in Phnom Penh preparing a situational analysis of Child Early Forced Marriage (CEFM) in Cambodia and surrounding South East Asia. I was working with interns from the US, Canada and Australia, and also had the chance to meet expats from all over the world. As part of my research, I met up with a range of regional NGOs and international organisations, to discuss the problem of CEFM and how they were working to dismantle it. I also got the opportunity to attend a couple of hearings at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

Cambodian law on marriageable age is essentially the same as Australia; you have to be 18 unless a parent or guardian consents. However, traditional notions of gender roles cause many young people, particularly girls, to be married before the age of 18. Child marriage is perceived as traditional and desirable. Marriage ceremonies between minors often take place with forged identity documents, or are simply absent of a marriage certificate.

Law reform in a developing country requires a fundamentally different way of thinking. Law enforcement is an immense challenge in a country like Cambodia with such limited resources. The government is often reluctant to offer funding for these kinds of issues, which are generally left to NGOs entirely reliant on international donors and volunteers.

For me, this was an important reminder of how the legal system tends to operate outside of the courtroom. At university, we are taught to think of the law in terms of litigation. In reality, litigation is typically not the most effective way to achieve positive outcomes when considering how to instigate widespread societal change.

Most Cambodians simply cannot afford to go through the legal system, as funding for legal aid is scarce and lawyers are few and far between. Moreover, police and courts are intensely underfunded, and suffer from inherent corruption – leading to widespread distrust of the judicial system. Victims of crime are encouraged to settle their problems through means of informal compensation rather than prosecution. This is extremely problematic in the context of vulnerable people, such as minors, who lack protection in the mediation process.

Instead, NGOs are achieving positive outcomes through capacity building and community legal education initiatives. They are working together to build support networks within communities to change perceptions about CEFM, and educate people about the harm it causes. Advocating for widespread law reform, particularly in a developing country, requires meaningful consideration about how the system operates in the wider social context.

In a country where they are essentially rebuilding their legal system from scratch, you come to understand the importance and reasoning behind some of our own legal processes. Yet drawing comparisons can also illuminate some of the gaps and challenges we face in Australia.

My major tip would be that if you want to achieve something meaningful when doing this kind of work you have to be prepared to be adaptable, and capable of taking the initiative to pursue things yourself. Countries like Cambodia face problems that don't just get fixed with a handful of good ideas. Issues are systemic, and organisations like Legal Aid only function by virtue of the passion and dedication of the people who work there – you have to be prepared to channel that.

For anyone thinking they may like to try something like this, generally all it takes is emailing the organisation that you’re interested in. As a region, South East Asia is appealing due to the relatively low cost for flights and living expenses, but there are also some scholarships out there if you’re willing to do a bit of searching!

Interested in financial support for an internship or activity related to your law studies? Find out more here.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team