The Cambodia National Rescue Party yesterday celebrated its top female candidates before the upcoming communal elections at an event under the slogan “Thousands of Lights for Women”, though women’s rights activists criticised the strategy as lacking teeth in fostering greater representation for women.
CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua advocated for the roles women can play in politics in a speech at the conference. “Our society always says that women don’t need to engage in politics, that they should stay home,” she said. “But politics is our life after all.”
She said she “strongly believed” that the 103 women who attended the event – each of which is listed in the top spot of their respective ballots – “will become commune chiefs”. Just two women from the Sam Rainsy Party, which merged with the Human Rights Party to form the CNRP, were elected as commune chiefs in 2012, while 93 Cambodian People’s Party-affiliated commune chiefs were elected, according to National Election Committee statistics.
Ung Sovanna, deputy chief of the CNRP’s Women’s Movement, said the female attendees were taught the same material as their male counterparts.
“We need to make them understand [the party’s points] clearly so that they can easily explain them to villagers,” she said. “We put them separately because we want to empower them,” she said.
But Ros Sopheap, the executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia, criticised the strategy of separating male and female candidates during training sessions. While providing a safe space for women to speak freely is important, she said, segregating them to discuss routine party messaging was counter-productive. “If they are separated, they might have difficulties working together later,” she said. Instead, she said parties should invest in capacity building tailored to women.
“Men always . . . have more time, but women are also responsible for managing the household and family members,” she said, calling for more cooperation between parties and women’s rights NGOs to address the issue. “I think the skills training for women in politics are not enough.” she said.
Sochua, who founded the Women’s Movement, said the party has already invested in a wide-ranging $43,000 training programme over the past three years, which she says has contributed to exceeding expectations four-fold of having just 25 women run in the top ballot spot.
Both parties have faced criticism over low numbers of female candidates for the upcoming communal elections. Just over 22 percent of Cambodian People’s Party candidates are women, while women make up just 16 percent of the CNRP’s candidates. Out of 1,646 communes, women candidates are first on the ballot in just 103.
Despite the poor representation, Sochua argued that change “cannot happen overnight”, as women often lack the educational qualifications due to expectations that they will fill certain roles. Those who are educated and have stable careers, meanwhile, are difficult to reach, she said. “They don’t want to take the risk of leaving the profession. For men, it’s easier. They often have access to more resources,” she said.
“We need to not just double the numbers, not just triple the numbers, we need to multiply it by five” in the next five years, she said.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights Executive Director Chak Sopheap said in an email that all of the country’s political parties should reform their gender policies. “[T]his commitment [to gender parity] must also be reflected in how a party manages its own affairs,” she wrote, saying a gender policy should be incorporated into every aspect of the organisation. “Cambodia does not lack talented and ambitious women – the challenge is to ensure that this potent resource does not go to waste,” she said.