W ITH a whistle and baton, Sem Chanthou's regular beat is the chaos of Monivong
Blvd. Among Phnom Penh's 600 traffic police, the 23-year-old is a rarity - a
One of only two traffic policewoman on active duty in Phnom Penh,
Chanthou battles discrimination as well as the traffic every day.
am directing traffic, motorists look down on me, they shout at me, they hit me
and look disgusted at me," she said.
"I feel so angry but I don't know
what to do."
Chanthou joined the traffic police a year ago because, she
said, "I want to promote women. I don't want people to say women can't do
Of five women who were on her training course, she is the only
one still on the streets.
Three of the women became police typists, while
the other quit the job after a month of traffic duty.
Chanthou is often
tempted to follow suit. While her male colleagues treat her equally - though
"they all pity me" - motorists are a different question.
want to resign but my boss and my colleagues try to encourage me to
Chanthou's boss, and her biggest supporter, is Major San Sophal,
the only other traffic policewoman.
A 17-year traffic police veteran -
and probably Cambodia's highest-ranking female police officer - Sophal has
intimate experience of the difficulties Chanthou faces.
When she joined
the traffic police in 1979, she said, she frequently had to fire her pistol to
ward off threatening or rude motorists, particularly "playboys".
to fire a gun to warn some people who were very rude to me, but I never shot
them, I just wanted to scare them."
In the early 1980s the rules were
changed - police officers were not allowed to shoot just to scare people - so
"now I just carry a gun for self-defense in case they attack us
Sophal, who because of her rank is allowed to carry a pistol
(Chanthou is not), said some motorists tried to threaten police when stopped for
traffic violations. High-ranking soldiers or officials, or their children, were
the worst offenders, she said.
"Some pretend to scratch their waists to
show off their guns. Some take out their guns and fire in the air and insult us
when we try to stop them.
"Some threaten us that they are high-ranking
and ask us to apologize to them."
Other motorists gave her fewer hassles,
she said, as they had become used to seeing her directing traffic year after
As a Major, and in charge of 142 of Phnom Penh's traffic police,
Sophal's job does not require her to work on the streets. But she frequently
ventures out to help her staff direct traffic.
"I feel uncomfortable
leaving them alone. I have to take care of them.
"The top [officials]
always say that traffic police are corrupt, so I have to watch their
Corruption, Sophal said, is "normal". But she believes only one
or two out of every 100 police are corrupt, pocketing money from traffic fines
and not giving receipts. She said she tried to teach them not to do
Sophal said the most frightening time for traffic police was when
there was an accident, and when the people involved fought or shot at each
Sometimes they fought with the police who tried to help, she
She said she had only shot someone once, in 1979 when she shot and
killed a thief.
Sophal's boss, deputy chief of traffic police El Narin,
said she was a good police officer.
"Some policemen are not doing the job
as well as her," Narin said.
"Policemen always get into disputes with
drivers, but Sophal can handle the job properly."
Narin said the
policemen under Sophal's control were well-trained, some of them eventually
being promoted over her head.
He said he had tried his best to promote
Sophal but his superiors did not pay too much attention to her.
said she would like to see more active female police officers, but many women
did not want to work outside all day long. Others believed that people would
"look down" on them if they joined the police.
Chantou said she had
wanted to be in the police since she was young, and was encouraged by an uncle
who was a policeman in Kandal.
Sophal joined the traffic police in 1979,
after the Pol Pot regime was ousted, because she wanted to help restore law and
Sophal said she also wanted to disprove the old Khmer saying that
"Women never turn the pot around," meaning women should always stay in the
She has more than proven her point. She said that when she now goes
to the provinces, she sometimes meets policemen who have heard of her by
Neither Sophal or Chanthou are sure that they will stick with
the job for years to come. They say the low salaries of the police is one reason
they may leave.
Chanthou earns between 20,000 to 30,000 riels a month.
Unmarried, she supports one sister and her mother.
Sophal, who earns
55,000 riels a month and an allowance because she has children, says she and her
policeman husband live "from hand to mouth".
Co-Minister of Interior You
Hockry, and other police officials, were unable to say whether Sophal and
Chanthou are the only active policewomen in Cambodia.
Hockry said the
number of policewomen was believed to be very small but there was no plan to
recruit new staff.
Of Phnom Penh's 651 traffic police, 17 are women. Only
Sophal and Chanthou work on the streets.
Men Sopheak, 24, who trained
with Chanthou and is now a police typist, said she did not want to be on traffic
"I can't endure that job. I can't stand under the sun all day and I
am not so healthy.
"[But] I always appreciate Sophal and Chanthou. They
are so brave and so active."