The engaged and confident voices of more than 60 women reverberated around the conference room of a Phnom Penh hotel, as they gathered to discuss politics. In a society where the traditional code of conduct Chbab Srey portrays women’s role as obedient and silent caretakers, this was an important event.
The women – local politicians from six Cambodian provinces – participated in a workshop organised as a part of Empowering Women Leaders at Sub-National Level, supported by UN Women and implemented by NGO SILAKA and the Committee to Promote Women in Politics (CPWP). They gathered with no regard for political affiliations to develop shared advocacy messages and policy-making skills.
According to data released in 2012, little over 17 per cent of women serve in policy decision-making positions in Cambodian communes and districts. At the national level, the number of women in the National Assembly fell from 21 to 20 per cent following the last election in 2013, reflecting the difficulty Cambodian women face in maintaining previous gains.
While these numbers are not shocking – even in comparison with Western democracies that are considered advanced in their political dialogues – the problem of women’s underrepresentation in decision-making has serious consequences. Issues such as sexual and reproductive health, women’s rights, lack of access to education for girls, human trafficking and violence against women are rarely addressed effectively in local administrations. Moreover, many measures further increase deeply entrenched inequalities by disregarding women’s needs and conditions.
The group of female political leaders meet regularly to strengthen community acceptance and recognition of female leadership and change and improve the situation of women in their communes. The project also offers the women the opportunity to network with civil society organisations and women’s movements, from subnational to the regional ASEAN level. Building on the success of sister group Young Women’s Leadership Network – the only group in Cambodia that was able to organise a cross-party dialogue before the landmark elections of July 2013 – the female politicians network builds bridges between political parties and decision-makers at all levels.
“My father always wanted me to have a good education, and he did everything for it. It was then my education, which helped me to achieve goals that I set for myself and to support women in my community. Working as a provincial councillor of Kratie province, I pay special attention to women affected by violence. I often walk from household to household, or women come to see me and I listen to their stories and help them stand up for their rights,” says Prak Chanton, one of most active participants of capacity-building workshops on women’s rights supported by UN Women.
Chanton was first promoted to her position in 2011. She was the only one of nine siblings to finish both primary and secondary education, walking 20 kilometres a day to reach school in the first five years. Chanton had a strong determination to make a change in her own life, and now she is helping other women in the villages of her commune. Working mostly with survivors of violence, Chanton believes that education can empower women and help them to work together to end violence.
“While education has helped me most, lack of education in women’s legal rights was also the greatest obstacle for me. I was then introduced to the CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women] during a workshop, and since then I keep using it to help women in my commune,” she says of her experience with helping women in her commune.
Veronika Stepkova is the communication officer for UN Women Cambodia.