Amid voting irregularities and fraud claims, last month’s elections claimed another victim as representation of women dropped to its lowest in a decade, Rosa Ellen reports.
On the Monday after the national election, as the country was abuzz with the uncertain result and the main parties publicly brewed over numbers, Ros Sopheap joined a discussion in the Situation Room, a tent at the offices of Comfrel (Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia), where civil society and election watchers discussed the vote.
Sopheap, who is deputy chair of the Committee to Promote Women in Politics (CPWP), had a burning question she wanted answered by the predominantly male panel. Whoever ended up forming the government, what should be done about the low number of women representatives in Cambodia’s parliament?
“I wanted them to bring the issue [up],” she explains over the phone the next day. “What was their answer to me? They said, ‘You should ask the political parties this. You shouldn’t ask this here.’
“The other male speaker [said] ‘Oh dear, women’ – like they’re weak.”
The dismissive response was not unusual to Sopheap, who is also executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia and has the often uphill task of educating organisation heads on why they should push for greater female representation.
But it was the supposedly open setting – a public forum in the direct aftermath of a crucial election – which was infuriating.
A few days later Comfrel put forward its own preliminary figures, expecting the next National Assembly to have just 16 women, or 13 per cent * – 10 fewer female lawmakers than Cambodia’s previous mandate, which had 26 women in the 123 seat Assembly. [The NEC would not say what its predictions were.]
The preliminary numbers were hardly unexpected – this election women made up 22 per cent of all election candidates, according to NEC data. Most of those female candidates stood not on the title ticket, but on the reserve list, in case a candidate dropped out.
Despite the presence of prominent lawmakers like Mu Sochua and (CPP permanent Deputy Prime Minister) Men Sam An, neither major party boosted the number of women on their lists this election or voluntarily enforced the UN Millennium Development Goal of a 30 per cent quota of women representatives. The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Human Rights Party (HRP) together had 23 women candidates in the 2008 election, and this year the combined CNRP has 12.
For Sonket Sereyleak, Comfrel’s education and gender coordinator, the male-female ratio of the next government is not just a side issue, or to be parceled with the youth vote, which parties often mention in the same breath. Even more campaigning and education went into the July 28 election than in 2008, where substantial gains were made, so what does the result say about politics in Cambodia?
“Our team tried to take more action (this time around). We coordinated more campaigns to put women on party lists but only the small parties put women. Some parties put 45 per cent and 35 per cent in their party lists but [when it comes to] the popular parties… it’s still hard work. After the election we will continue trying to advocate.”
A week after the election, at 9:30am in Battambang’s Phsar Thmei, Mu Sochua, who won one of the province’s eight seats, moved through the crowded aisles of vegetable and fish sellers with a team of local supporters. A week had passed since she re-won her seat and the 59-year-old, in a white blouse and dark, patterned sampot, made the rounds of the morning markets, thanking people for their votes and support.
She stopped in the shade in front of two dessert stalls and with a microphone addressed the women ladling out sago and sweets. The women shyly answered her questions with smiles.
How long had they been selling deserts for? Fifteen years answered one – 30, said another.
And after 30 years they haven’t changed from sweets? Cambodia needs to change, to develop, she told them with a smile.
Trailing Sochua through the crowd was the CNRP’s male number two candidate, Long Botta, a handful of eager young people and, so the team claim, two plain-clothes policemen.
Later, Sochua said, she confronted the pair by serving them a stern political message – “change”.
When she started her election campaigning in force, the mood in the predominantly female market crowd was timid and people were reluctant to respond to the politician’s public banter, Sochua said. After the success of the CNRP with Sam Rainy’s return and in Battambang – in which the party is contesting an extra seat on top of its three agreed wins – people openly showed their support for the party.
Battambang local Srey Pov, 35, who happened to be shopping for groceries while the CNRP crowd depart for the food area, was a party supporter and –when asked – said she would like more women in the National Assembly “but I want someone with enough credentials.”
Sochua has a similar answer to the misbalance.
The party’s shedding of the female candidates when it was formed was a practical move, she said.
“Because we are the opposition – that’s number one. We put [women] at the top level – we don’t just sign people [to the] opposition, we want them to win. Of the 15 [CNRP] women candidates, 7 or 8 of them won. As for the CPP, they are in the system already. They are professional women, it’s easy for them to choose their female candidates,” she said. “As for us, we have to find these women and then put them on the list and we did not just want to put women on the reserve list…”
But aren’t most on the reserve list?
“Yes but they’re on the top ones as well --the top ones are sure wins. We could increase more. We could put four or five women on the reserve list, we could get any women on the reserve list, but we don’t want to demoralise them, like FUNCINPEC.
[They have] a lot of women…It is not about numbers, it’s about quality. Otherwise you don’t do a service to women in politics.”
Although the royalist party, which had roughly the same percentage of female candidates as the CNRP, suffered near total defeat at the July 28 election, the party has in the past supported a 30 per cent quota of candidates and is the only party with a female head, with late King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s daughter Princess Norodom Arun Rasmey.
While the three best-known political parties made no gains with female representation, small and lesser-known parties such as the KEDP (Khmer Economic Development Party), only seven months old by the time of the election, had 50 per cent female candidates.
Vice President Lim Samnang attributed the number of women who wanted to run on the KEDP ticket to the minor party’s economic and social policies, but their late-starting campaign mainly featured outspoken KEDP president and wealthy businessman Huon Reach Chamroeun.
Moving women off the reserve list and into the top slots of the ballot sheet, is a big barrier, says Sopheap, but getting candidates to a level where they are campaign ready is not just a matter of being “qualified” , but having money.
Young first-time CNRP candidate Yang Phannet was listed as the party’s number four in Prey Veng, where 10 out of the 77 titular candidates were female, but says tradition, money and skills are the biggest barriers to other young women.
“As you know, in Khmer culture the daughters cannot learn much or as high as the men and the women are not encouraged to join in politics as the men [are].
“Most Cambodian women depend on their husband, so if they want to join in the politician or any party they have to have enough budget for supporting both family and party because the party needs all the members donate,” she says.
Mu Sochua estimates she spent a total “of about $50,000 for one seat – the top seat” while campaigning for more than a year. “To win,” she says, “you have to have at least $20,000.”
Laying the groundwork – canvassing at the market, public speaking, petitioning and braving intimidation – is a huge challenge for most women working and supporting their families. The point may be an obvious one, but the weight of traditional gender norms on prospective female political candidates cannot be overestimated, says Sochua, who paid campaign costs for all her female reserve candidates. She insists the issue of female representation is a genuine priority to the senior leaders of the CNRP. She herself is a mentor to younger women and is on the lookout for go-getters, several of whom she has met in Battambang province.
“If a woman wants to run, [she] has to be balance the two [gender] roles. Actually it’s two different lives – in the home and outside. For myself, I’m able to manage that because I have every supportive family and I don’t have any financial obligations – my husband takes care of the whole thing. So for someone who is at the lower level, but wants to reach up to the higher level, you have to go through three big barriers.”
There are affirmative mechanisms to address the substantial barriers, says Sereyleak. If not NGO-run training programs to build women leaders, there is the 30 per cent legal quota, which would bind the political parties to putting forward many more female candidates. Cambodia’s own goal of 25 per cent female representation by the year 2015 is well-acknowledged to be no more than a pipe dream now.
“ Even though [the SRP and HRP] joined together they did not consider promoting [women] for this election,” she says. “The 30 per cent quota is an effective way to promote women’s participation and to increase democracy…Because if they use a quota system it will increase the number of women in the election. Rwanda uses the election quota. They’ve had a very good experience.”
At the Situation Room after the election, Sopheap listened as the conversation moved away from her topic and back to the disputed results and dramatic events of the night before.
“It’s not about men and women - it’s beyond that,” she says.
“Every time I raise this [issue] with women who are not even highly educated, they understand. But every time I raise this with highly educated men (they don’t).
“My point was that they have to make a decision, about where to go with this - what can we do?”
Several female CPP candidates approached refused to take questions for this story.
*New figures will be released after 7Days goes to print. Additional reporting by Mom Kunthear