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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Political parties want to win elections

Political parties want to win elections


So they need popular candidates, and female candidates are very


Record number of women seek office

In theory, political equality arrived in Cambodia in 1955 when women were granted

the right to vote and allowed to stand for election. Three years later, the Kingdom's

first female parliamentarian, Tong Siv Eng, was elected to the National Assembly.

Mu Sochua, Secretary-general of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, on the campaign trail in Bathey, Kampong Cham province. The SRP fielded six percent fewer female candidates in the 2007 commune council elections than it did in 2002. The CPP increased their number of female candidates by four percent.

In practice, however, political equality has been slow to materialize. Half a century

after Siv Eng's success at the polls, only two out of 25 ministers, eight out of

127 secretaries of state, and 15 out of 135 undersecretaries of state are women.

Experts point to Cambodia's high rate of female illiteracy and Chbab Srey-induced

female passivity as two of the main factors that deter women from entering politics.

But with the country's first district-level elections five years ago, women began

finding their place on the political stage, and the ensuing five years have helped

cement their contributions to the country's social and political development.

Twice as many female candidates ran in Sunday's commune elections than did in 2002,

and the emergence of female candidates is quietly reshaping the Cambodian political


"As a female candidate it is very hard to persuade citizens to elect you,"

said Kim Chansopath, council member in Sangkat Boeng Keng Kong I. "As a female

commune council member, you have to struggle to convince both men and women that

you are able to do this job. [But] there are only two important things in politics:

whether you win or lose - not whether you are man or woman."

Coming to the party

Commune elections run on a party-list system. A voter selects a party, not a candidate.

The election winners are the top-listed party members from the party with the most


In 2002, 1,161 female candidates were ranked in the top three places on party lists.

In 2007, that number leapt to 2,328. The increase is because political parties have

realized that female candidates win votes, said Pok Nanda, executive director of

Women for Prosperity (WfP), a local NGO that provides support and training to female

political candidates.

"Political parties want to win elections," she said. "So they need

popular candidates, and female candidates are very popular. Women are visible at

the local level, sincere, serious - they care. This is what the parties and the voters

have seen of their performance since 2002."

Over the last five years, voters have become more open to female candidates, and

women more eager to participate in politics, Nanda said. Female involvement in local

level politics since the 2002 commune elections has helped break down the widely

held view that politics is dirty, corrupt, violent and best left to men, she said.

"How do you get your child to go to school?" Nanda asked. "Where do

you take your children when they are sick? How much does this service cost? When

you tell women this is politics, then they want to get involved."

Their involvement has been beneficial, said Nanda. Some of the 2002 female commune

councilors that WfP have worked with have proved remarkably effective at reducing

corruption in their communities and appear to have helped usher in a new era of transparency

and accountability in local level politics, she said.

"They encourage everyone to work as a council not as individuals," she

said. "In some cases they have demanded that the commune chief and the clerk

have meetings with the whole council about the budget which reduces the risk of corruption.

We have told them 'if your council is corrupt, you are corrupt.' They see this and

work to find ways to stop their council being corrupt."

Changing the agenda

Increased female participation is also injecting new issues into the traditionally

male-dominated agendas of local-level politics, said Maraile Goergen, who has carried

out German government-funded research on female commune councilors across Cambodia.

"The work is gendered," she said. "Women focus on healthcare, education,

and other services whereas men focus on infrastructure, law and order, security.

But due to the fact the work is gendered, women have become key to commune councils.

And as their confidence grows, they are taking on more work."

Women in rural Cambodia, as in many countries, tend to carry out more than their

fair share of labor and consequently may have a more immediate understanding of,

and better ability to articulate, the problems facing their families and communities,

said Canadian Ambassador Donnica Pottie.

"There are many intelligent women living in rural areas where they have limited

access to education," she said. "Yet they are still very bright and very

able to make an enormous contribution to their community."

Female commune councilors have become so popular, and their impact so beneficial,

that their numbers are increasing despite the lack of quota system or affirmative

action, said Mu Sochua, secretary-general of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).

"We had to stay within the cultural context and change from within, but now

real change is coming," she said. "As women we have had to prove to ourselves,

as well as others, that we are capable."

Although there is a scarcity of politically experienced Cambodian women, the 2002

influx of commune councilors have worked hard and grown noticeably in both confidence

and capacity, Sochua said.

"We are really seeing more high-quality candidates," she said. "They

are working to boost their skills, to improve their education and, step by step,

they are managing it."

Along party lines

Though the overall number of female candidates for commune council positions has

increased, the breakdown along party lines demonstrates how important support and

training is to keep women in politics.

In 2002, 13 percent of the CPP's candidates were women.

Funcinpec did moderately better with 14 percent, and the SRP fielded slightly more

than 20 percent female candidates.

But according to the National Election Commission (NEC) figures for 2007, the CPP

fielded 17 percent female candidates, Funcinpec managed 19 percent, and the SRP dropped

to 14 percent.

"We have learned our lesson," said Sochua. "We didn't provide enough

support for our female candidates. Women are subject to a double victimization -

a general cultural discrimination against their gender, and then a real antipathy

towards women in politics. We are already talking now about how we can support [female

SRP commune officials] more in future."

In contrast, the CPP was able to increase its proportion of women candidates because

it could provide a more comprehensive support network, said councilmember Chansopath.

"The CPP offers a lot of training for female candidates," she said. "There

are many female candidates in the party and they are given lots of support and help."

Personal battles

For Khim Makara, a 33-year-old female Funcinpec candidate, her party's political

decline has reduced the amount of both party and public support available to her.

"I organized my election campaign myself, but I've not received many votes because

of the conflict in the party," she said. "As a female candidate I have

endured a lot of criticism. People say I can't work as well as a man."

While campaign support from their parties helps, female candidates still face a personal

struggle against conservative social values. But that battle, too, is slowly being


"In 2002 it was really hard personally for females in politics as their husbands

often didn't support their work," said Ros Sopheap, executive director, Gender

and Development for Cambodia (GAD). "This time [2007] I think more female candidates

will have support from their families. The husbands see that they get benefits, for

example more status in their village if their wife is a commune councilor. But many

women still have a problem balancing domestic work and party work."

Not only is it important to encourage the families of female commune officials to

support them, it is imperative to encourage families to value their daughters' educations

more so that the next generation of female politicians has a chance to develop, said


"In Cambodian society women have far fewer opportunities than men so it is important

to target them," she said. "We offer training to female politicians, and

we try to educate parents to help them see why it is important not to just let their

daughters drop out of school."

Special measures should be taken to help Cambodian girls pursue a higher education,

said Pottie. Factors such as a lack of restrooms in schools and acceptable dorm arrangements

away from home result in many females never finishing their education, she said.

"A lack of education is an impediment to entering politics," she said.

"Not a major one, but it is a huge impediment to economic growth."

The success of women in politics has ruffled a few male feathers, said WfP's Nanda.

"There may be some resistance at first," she said. "But we are not

trying to take over the country, we just want to be equals, we just want to be allowed

to enter politics and participate in the decision making process in our country.

We don't want to see ignored, excluded, ignorant women wasting their lives and their

potential in our country."

For Chansopath, the opportunities for women in politics are endless.

"I believe Cambodia could have a female prime minister," she said. "I

see many strong women in Cambodia, women are sometimes stronger than men. I think

that in the next three or four years you could have a female candidate for prime




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