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Joining the party

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Sin Chan Pov Rozeth and other SRP members applaud a speaker at the dinner. Photograph: Ruth Keber

In Cambodia’s male-dominated political arena, young women party members of all stripes come together to learn leadership skills, election strategies and how to lead a new generation. 

In a Wednesday evening, Sonket Sereyleak, educator and gender co-ordinator at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), is giving advice to a group of aspiring political leaders: keep speeches concise, respect the rule of time and when walking on stage in the glare of supporters and opponents, don’t be kowtowed by tradition – and don’t sashay.

“Speak as a leader onstage,” she says. “Don’t speak as a girl, as a mother. When you walk on stage…you cannot walk as you do at home – as a girl, as a mother – you must walk as a leader.”

The group is meeting inside a deep red, ornamented private dining room at the Khmer Surin restaurant on Street 51. Every six weeks, the 25 young women – all members from the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the Sam Rainsy Party, Funcinepc and two royalist parties – sit down to a buffet dinner while a guest presenter speaks on advancing democracy and navigating election season politics.”

Outside the restaurant, in the slippery world of Cambodian politics, such inter-party co-operation is unlikely. Not even Cambodia’s Women’s Congress has managed to sit down together for more than one meeting – in 2009 – let alone nearly once a month.

But if you are young and female and politically active, then shared frustration with the status quo can form a bridge. Ahead of a national election where women currently make up 22 per cent of the National Assembly, the attendees say they are happy to set politics aside while they learn how to be leaders.

Cambodia adopted the UN’s Millenium Development Goal of 30 per cent female representation in government, but so far less developed neighbours Laos and East Timor are closer to achieving it.

The women are up against a tradition of deferred authority and what Minister of Women’s Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi refers to as the Western-termed “old boys’ club”.

On the agenda tonight is dealing with “domination techniques”, as well as the importance of lobbying for women’s rights. But the real theme of this evening’s UN Women-organised event is how to harness what is perhaps the most powerful weapon a politician can possess: public speaking.

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Twenty-five young women, five members from each main Cambodian party, come to the table for a series of talks and workshops organised by UN Women.  Ruth Keber

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Tong Phally and Pan Pichenda, leaders in the women’s wing of Funcinpec.  Rosa Ellen

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Eang Maly gives feedback on a participant’s public speaking.  Ruth Keber

“There are three different ways to convey your message,” says presenter Sereyleak. “This way, people can easily receive your message.”

Covering topics such as how to target supporters, the “three types” of voters, exaggerating election promises and the importance of hard facts and research, the two-hour-long presentation could be mistaken for a class on Politics 101. But the rapt attention paid by the participants, all of whom seem to have come after work or study – one has brought a child – suggests this is a far more serious endeavour.

“Number one: emotional framing. What is your feeling in certain situations?” continues Sereyleak.

“Number two: logical your topic with research. For example: What is the evidence to support this statement?

“Three: Perspective framing. Share your personal view. I will ask two or three to practice this rule. If you present a problem, you need to present solutions.”

Later, Tong Phally, from Funcinpec, gets up and talks about traffic accidents, using the techniques learnt in the session. She speaks confidentially and concisely, finishing with a rehearsed plea to the government to enforce traffic laws.


Next is Sin Chan Pov Rozeth, a small and determined elected SRP commune consultant from Battambang. She speaks loudly and introduces herself as a member of the National Rescue Party.

 This may be the closest the speakers veer towards articulating their party beliefs. Rozeth begins outlining the NRP policies of minimum wage entitlements and pensions and goes over time.

 “You don’t respect the time limit,” says a young woman from CPP.

“She spoke very fast, she didn’t explain much – just covered the main points,” says another.

“She seems to be too serious. She should reduce the volume of her voice. Smile, because you are presenting something good – if you spoke for 30 minutes, the listeners would be very tired!” Sereyleak concludes.

Boasting a few prominent female leaders and ministers is one thing, but pushing the names of women up to the top of ballot sheets is the real battle, says Ros Sopheap, executive director of GADC (Gender and Development for Cambodia) and current secretariat of the Committee to Promote Women in Politics (CPWP), a network of Cambodian NGOs focused on achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

A warm and effusive woman with a long background in social justice, Sopheap is wearily hesitant about the likelihood of Cambodia reaching the quota.

“I’m still a little bit concerned that 25-30 per cent by 2015 may not be achieved.

“This is a complicated process – the process of membership, of politics. You have to bring your history of joining political parties, especially ruling parties. Also, another obstacle is if you decide to join the not-ruling parties, there are sometimes other obstacles [like] isn’t easy.”

Women’s reluctance to sign up and pay party membership fees for themselves (instead of their husbands) follows the traditional assumption that politics is a man’s realm, and contributes to the low number of female candidates, Sopheap explains. What is more “interesting”, she says  – in an unfortunate way – is that educated women don’t seem at all interested in joining commune-level politics. A yet-to-be-released CPWP study indicates women factory workers are more likely to pursue local political roles.

“It seems that the way of thinking is that young people do not think the work of the commune is their role. After they finish their bachelor degree they think of advancing their role at the national level. It’s so sad. But the women at the factory…they stick to the commune. They want to deal with violence against women, I think because this is their experience.”

Eang Maly, 31, has had a taste of campaigns at both levels of government but sees herself eventually working at the national level. With an engaging smile and a capable air, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) member offers feedback to the group’s volunteer speakers and stands up to talk, while keeping an eye on her toddler son.

Maly found her own way to politics after being introduced to the SRP by a neighbour. Raising her son as a single mother, and volunteering, then working for Mu Sochua, the most prominent woman in the SRP, built her political education, but she is most passionate about equity and fighting corruption. She says no one in her family is political and her aunt, a market seller who raised her, has a positive fear of it, stemming from the Pol Pot era.

Despite learning how to be leaders and representatives in their parties, discussion about political policies is not on the agenda.

“I don’t know what they are thinking from the CPP, about the situation in Cambodia,” Maly says carefully. “I think they know. They know already about the situation, about the problems. But sometimes they cannot say, they keep silent... maybe they think the situation in Cambodia is very good under Prime Minister Hun Sen. I don’t know.

“I keep my ideas and I just make myself good, so that maybe they see I’m from the Sam Rainsy Party and think, ‘Oh that person is good, so maybe the party is good.’”

“We are sharing the problems and setting out ideas,” says 21-year-old Nguon Sony, from the CPP. “UN Women raise the ideas about women so no one cares that we are from different parties.”

The meetings introduce new areas that women might not know should be on the agenda, Sony, who is reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People says. One meeting on women with disabilities, prompted her to become interested in bringing up rights within her branch of the CPP afterwards.

“After I noticed this, I understood the problems of women and they taught me how to show the problem [to my party].”

But the most salient of the messages the meetings have enforced is personal empowerment .

“The most important [technique] is number one: when women should be brave to talk in public. In meetings, women have to talk, have to raise their ideas.  They can’t be afraid of their ideas because there are less women already, so if we don’t raise our ideas, who will care but us?”

With 30 days of campaigning allowed for the national election, the window of time to get your message out is crucial – especially if you are a small party, Sereyleak explains, pulling up a slide.

What should you focus on during the 30-day campaign? she asks the group.

At the very end of the table, Rozeth raises her hand.

“A one month campaign has three objectives: make people know us [by slogans etc], make people believe in us, make people help us,” she says.

Last June, at age 25, Rozeth faced off an incumbent commune chief more 50 years her senior, for the O’Char commune. But having her voice heard is still not easy, she says. In commune council meetings, members smoke, eat and talk through her turn to speak. Despite being next in command, she  says paperwork and details are withheld from her, keeping her from carrying out her elected duties.

“The challenge with men is that they think I’m still young and inexperienced. When they have the meeting in the commune, I want to express my ideas about protecting women but they don’t support them...they ignore my speeches.”

A woman in a black pantsuit raises her hand.

“Is it possible for people to know you in 30 days? The media coverage in our country is not equal so we can [only] use the campaign period to speak freely about our party.”

Married at 16, 30-year-old Phally is now divorced and when she is not working for the women’s wing of Funcinpec, studies and works, sending her salary home to her children. One of her children is now a teenager and lives together with both her parents, farmers in Kandal.

“The main thing I want to do is improve the party to be stronger, as much as I can,” she tells me later at a cafe. “I want what King Sihanouk achieved in 1981, and before when he was the head of the republic –during the 1960s, during his reign - it was very peaceful, people were happier…

Now they (Funcinpec) have policies to unite Cambodia.”

Unlike the two other major parties, Funcinpec has achieved the 30 per cent quota of female candidates, though fewer have actually been elected. Both Phally and her co-organiser Pan Pichenda point to the fact that their royalist party is headed by a woman, Princess Norodom Arun Rasmey. They emphasise the need for “capacity” – a word bandied a lot at the UN Women meeting.

“How can we have 30 per cent representation if we don’t have capable women?” asks a young woman with long hair in a hairband.

Sereyleak pauses before answering.

“In Cambodia, more than 17 per cent of local leaders are women. In Cambodia, more than 30 per cent of university graduates are women…the 30 per cent quota doesn’t refer to capacity. It refers to the special measures [necessary]. Women always say ‘women are not capable’ – but how can you expect them to be capable if you don’t give them opportunities?

“Convince your party –put 30 per cent in your party list, regardless of capacity or seniority. Equity is not about capacity, it’s about equal chance...equity is a stepping stone towards gender equality.”

As the meeting ends, the group – plus one minder – filter out, not mixing, but many promising to return.



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