SEVEN female parliamentarians, one female deputy governor, no Cabinet members. Although
March 8 marks a national holiday for International Women's Day, these paltry numbers
reflect the virtual shut-out Cambodia's women face in public life.
"It's really true there are few women in politics," said MP and longtime
women's rights proponent Men Sam An, noting that women make up well over half of
the population. "It is dependent on Cambodian culture and civilization."
"Nobody encourages women to be political and not many women go on to higher
education," agreed Undersecretary of State for Women's Affairs Im Run. "Families
want to keep their daughters close to home."
These two factors - lack of education, and Khmer culture - are the reasons why women
are kept out of public life, politicians agree. "And the two reasons are interrelated,"
says Tioulong Saumura, a steering committee member of the Khmer Nation Party.
She cited the "inherent inequality" between the sexes, which begins in
childhood, "especially in terms of education, because of the cultural and religious
system which privileges boys".
Poor families who must choose which child they can afford to send to school will
typically choose a boy. And the free education available at pagodas is only open
According to the 1997 Cambodia Human Development Report, "Girls have higher
dropout rates and lower enrollment rates, especially at the post-primary level, than
boys. However, they have lower repetition rates and lower ages at entry into school,
suggesting that the girls who make it to secondary school perform better than boys."
Yet girls are still valued less. "As a little girl I remember hearing a Chinese
tale: 'having a daughter is like having a toilet in front of your house, it can bring
nothing but shame'," Saumura said. "Cambodian culture is really based on
the inferiority of women."
Educational and media messages seem to confirm this view. School children are taught
the Ch'bab Srei , or traditional women's law. A sampling: "If your husband gives
an order, don't hesitate a moment in responding... avoid posing yourself as an equal
to your husband, and never above he who is your master; if he insults you, go to
your room and reflect, never insult or talk back to him."
And according to the Media Monitoring Group, which has just completed two surveys,
newspapers and TV echo this view.
"The media in Cambodia reinforces the stereotype of women in traditional roles,"
said Tive Sarayeth of the MMG, an arm of the Women's Media Center.
As society's view is imposed on the women themselves, it saps their self-confidence,
said Im Run. "Because of what society believes about women's characters, some
women don't believe in themselves."
Female MPs admitted that women did not often speak at the male-dominated National
Assembly sessions. "Some women are afraid of talking, sometimes they think their
opinion will not be accepted by the session," Men Sam An said, although adding
she herself was not intimidated.
Inequality is even embedded in the Khmer language, Saumura believes. For example,
she said that as the former vice governor of the National Bank, she was entitled
to sit in the Council of Ministers, but had no title equivalent to her male colleagues'Ek
"I was so irritated, but no one cared," said Saumura. She was called Lok
Chumtev, which means merely the wife of an Ek Udom. "I had the qualifications
of a man, I was doing the job of a man, but... I was called the same as the wife
of Hun Sen!"
UN rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg will be citing the lack of women's political participation
in this month's report to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, according
to UNCHR's director Rosemary McCreery. "The virtually absolute absence of women
in the top levels of public life is really noticeable."
All three major parties (CPP, Funcinpec, KNP) have women's wings to encourage political
participation. But that task is not easy.
"It's difficult to find women [to join the party]," said MP and Funcinpec
women's wing president Ky Lum Ang. "They are afraid to enter politics."
She noted that women may be more afraid of or vulnerable to political intimidation.
Yet women's representation in high office is important, the politicians agreed. Saumura
remembered being the sole dissenter to the allocation of less than 1% of the budget
to Women's Affairs, which she said amounted to a "negation" of women's
"And when we talked about gender or sex issues, the men had an odd attitude,"
said Saumora, recounting another incident when all the men nudged each other and
sniggered when the subject of AIDS came up. "The only person who remained serious
was me! I looked at them all very hard until they stopped laughing."
Several new political parties are pledging to address the needs of women in their
platforms. The Cracy the Law Women's and Nation Party, led by Po Tey, aims to improve
women's rights in Cambodia and field a slate of candidates which is two-thirds female.
Pen Sovann said that his Cambodian National Sustaining Party will also make sure
one-third of its candidates are female, as will the KNP and Funcinpec.
Po Tey said she was the only female party president in the country. Cambodia Women's
Party and the Women and Legitimacy Party have men as presidents, according to an
Election Bureau list.
Ky Lum Ang said she wanted to encourage women to enter politics of any stripe. "I
am happy to cooperate with women from other parties," she said. "If we
have more women [at the National Assembly], we can have enough rights, enough numbers
of women to be strong."
One NGO, Women For Prosperity, is running training projects to enourage women voters
and candidates, including tips on how to manage a campaign.
"We're confident that we'll see more women candidates this time than in 1993,"
said executive director Pok Nanda.
The government is also working to address women's issues, but the Ministry of Women's
Affairs is hampered by funding constraints: it receives a mere 0.12% of the national
budget. They compensate by sponsoring capacity-building and vocational training projects
with UN agencies or NGOs, Im Run said.
For Women's Day the ministry will be distributing T-shirts and posters as well as
making presentations in schools and universities on the problem of gender inequality
Members of the Assembly commission that deals with women's affairs will also be going
to the provinces on Women's Day to raise awareness and enourage women's political
participation, said vice-president Men Sam An.
But Saumura believes the government is not doing enough, and that only significant
investment in women's education will make a difference.
"You cannot change this mentality just with speeches, you must take concrete
measures." She suggests implementing education courses for adult women and establishing
grants to send girls to school.
"The government must establish discriminatory measures in favor of little girls...
the empowerment of women can come only through education."