By Chris Arsenault

KOH KONG, Cambodia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Facing eviction from the five-hectare rice plot he had been farming for years and worried about how he would feed his three kids, Ngeth Sim did something he will always regret.

"I beat up my wife after we lost our land," said Sim, 42, wearing a knock-off Ralph Lauren cardigan and plastic sandals on calloused feet.

After their land was taken, the family had no money to send their children to school. "We couldn't buy food," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in the farming region of Koh Kong, 160 km (100 miles) west of the capital, Phnom Penh.

"I used domestic violence even though I know it's against the law," he said, as his young daughter slept in his lap.

Domestic violence is plaguing Cambodian communities beset by land conflicts linked to a mix of unclear ownership deeds, booming urban construction and large-scale agricultural investment, according to a report by the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), echoing findings of an earlier U.S. study.

A recent survey by the CCHR found that about a quarter of the 612 Cambodian women it interviewed said they had been victims of domestic abuse.

More than half of these women had not experienced domestic abuse before their families had faced eviction or had become involved in land disputes, according to the survey, carried out across 12 provinces of the southeast Asian nation.

"Women (in Cambodia) are generally expected to fulfill traditional roles, which involve duties that can only be performed where there is security of tenure, such as providing shelter and food for the family," said the report.

CHALLENGING TRADITION

Between 2000 and 2014, about 770,000 Cambodians - more than six percent of the population - were affected by land conflicts, according to charges presented by human rights lawyers at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.

Cambodia's government disputes those statistics, but agrees that land conflicts have been a problem.

Officials said land disputes have been falling as the government steps up titling initiatives, dispute resolution systems and enforcement against companies that break the rules.

This decline comes amid a significant drop in poverty, fueled by economic growth rates of seven percent, largely due to a boom in agriculture and construction, officials said.

Today, less than 20 percent of Cambodians are living below the national poverty line, down from more than half in 2004, according the World Bank, although the average annual income is still less than $1,100.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs said domestic violence in the country of 15 million people has reduced over the past five years.

"Women have been changing their mindset; they no longer accept domestic violence as tradition," Sar Sineth, a senior official at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The ministry has taken action by providing training to police and the community, bringing awareness to make them understand about gender violence," she said.

The government does not keep specific statistics on women and land conflicts, Sineth said, adding that the ministry "helps all women, including the ones with land disputes".

TROUBLE FOR ACTIVISTS

But women involved in land conflicts are still living with the fear and stress of their situation, they say.

Phao Nheung, a 40-year-old farmer, has been under threat of eviction from her house in Koh Kong province since 2009, when a sugar plantation took an interest in her land.

Nheung said the struggle has put immense pressure on her family and destroyed her marriage.

"My husband said: 'Just leave the land, it will be easier'. But I wouldn't leave," Nheung told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Then he left me."

Female land rights activists in Cambodia's cities say they have faced similar problems.

Sy Heap, 68, lived in Boeung Kak Lake, an area in downtown Phnom Penh, where about 3,500 families waged a drawn-out battle over compensation with a real estate developer who took control of the land in 2007.

"I lost everything, my house and my business," Heap told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, sitting across from a large construction site where luxury apartments are being built.

Heap and other women are still demanding that 20 families who rejected a compensation package presented by authorities "receive land titles from the government".

The pressure of protesting led to her divorce, said Heap, adding that her daughter is in prison for organizing protests.

'CONSTANT FEAR'

"Women are disproportionately impacted by evictions," Jayson Richardson, a professor at San Diego State University in the United States, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Drug use and domestic violence are huge (following displacement) as a result of stress," said Richardson who has studied the link between gender and land conflicts in Cambodia.

Some women live in "constant fear that the government is going to pull the property out from under them", leading to psychological problems, he said.

Nearly half of women surveyed by the CCHR report on land conflicts and domestic violence said they had contemplated suicide, while 18 percent of the women had attempted it.

Since being evicted from what he said was his land in 2006, Ngeth Sim and his family have worked as casual laborers on other farms.

He hasn't hit his wife since the village council got involved in their dispute following their eviction, he said, but their uncertain future still puts pressure on the family.

"Now we sell our labor but the money isn't not enough. This is why (my wife and I) had an argument," Sim said.

"I don't have any hope at all. If the company gave back my land, I would have hope."

Travel support for this reporting was provided by OpenLandContracts.org, an initiative of the Columbia Centre on Sustainable Investment.

(Reporting By Chris Arsenault; editing by Paola Totaro and Jo Griffin.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)