In the second of a series on the Feb 3, 2002 commune elections, Rajesh Kumar
looks at the role of women in politics, and the women who have made it in a male-dominated
THE first commune election in Cambodian history may well see another political
first in the Kingdom - women willing to challenge the traditional male dominance
in commune council politics.
Though the leading political parties are yet to finalize their candidate list for
the commune councils and are still weighing the advantages of nominating women, an
NGO-sponsored training program is preparing a small cadre of politically aware women
to get involved in the Kingdom's political grassroots.
With generous funding from Norway, the Netherlands, USA, Canada and the Global Fund
for Women, Women for Prosperity (WFP) has undertaken a training program at the village
and commune levels, preparing women for an active role in their local administration
"The programme (Empowerment of Women in Politics ) was launched on May 1 with
an objective to encourage women to run as candidates in the commune elections and
provide training to those who have identified themselves as potential candidates
with necessary skills to enable them organize and conduct their campaign more effectively,"
WFP executive director Nanda Pok said.
With active support and participation by other women's organizations like Amara and
Banteay Srey, a total of 114 training sessions are scheduled to be held over the
next seven months aimed at training around 5,500 women well before the elections,
with simultaneous lobbying for their inclusion on the candidate lists of various
In a country still struggling to recover from more than three decades of conflict,
women have had extremely limited opportunities to participate in the political process,
particularly at the grassroots level. WFP is among the first efforts to assist and
empower women to actively join the commune election process as potential candidates.
But where politics remains synonymous with corruption, violence and intimidation,
finding enough women who are ready to take the plunge is no mean task.
Cambodian traditions which undervalue the education of girls compared to that of
boys is also a handicap to attracting a representative spectrum of female potential
commune election candidates. The commune election requirement that all commune council
members be able to read and write in Khmer excludes a large percentage of females
who might otherwise want to become involved.
Thavy Chhoeun, Director of Banteay Srey, said fear of political intimidation and
the difficulty women had committing themselves full-time to politics due to their
household responsibilities remained the two main constraints.
"[Some] candidates who have expressed their willingness [to join the process]
are financially better off and, therefore, can afford to spare time," Chhoeun
said, adding that such women were usually able to read and write.
The extent of the problem facing those seeking to empower women to challenge traditional
male dominance in Cambodian politics was underlined in a recent Asia Foundation survey
which determined that a majority of respondents - male and female - refused to accept
an equal role for women in politics and maintained that men should advise women on
their voting choices.
"The feeling that commune councils should be comprised mostly of men is deeply
rooted in Khmer society, probably reflecting both traditional culture and the military
role played by commune government through decades of war and civil conflict,"
the Democracy in Cambodia survey report released in April states.
To counter such attitudes, the WFP has created a cadre of 78 female trainers, 55
of whom have been assigned to target local women with leadership qualities or public
influence in each of the Kingdom's 18 provinces. Those targeted individuals are now
being given training and help designed to encourage their participation in the commune
"These trainers are mainly school teachers and officials attached with the women's
affairs departments (of various municipalities) who have experience in teaching,
training and understanding of the women's issues," Nanda Pok said. "Once
women candidates are identified, our volunteers will print posters with their photographs
and brief life history and actively canvass for them in the communes."
Such information is crucial to ensure candidates' visibility in a party-based election
where the voters are often unfamiliar with those running.
With issues in the WFP curriculum including "What is politics " and "Why
women in politics ", the program seeks to institute gender equality as a measure
of grassroots democracy in Cambodia.
Gender equality aside, women are generally perceived to be better equipped to handle
development issues. Panha Koul, Director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections
(Comfrel), says women are better peace-makers, more sensitive to basic issues like
health and community development and less likely to be corrupt.
"Most men go out to other women or to prostitutes and are in the habit of drinking
and gambling. The extra money that they need for these activities is often the root
cause of corruption. Moreover, men are aggressive and violent by nature, whereas
women try to resolve [disputes] through dialogue," Nanda Pok added.
Women that Comfrel are training seem quite clear on their expectations from the commune
councils: better health care, clean drinking water, schooling for children and resolution
"We just give them the option whether they would like others to do the job for
them even if they could take the responsibility in their own hands and make sure
they got what they wanted," Koul said.
According to Chhoeun, Banteay Srey's focus is on those women who were already heading
their ongoing community development and food security projects in provinces like
Siem Reap and Battambang. While training them for the leadership roles in these projects,
she says her organization was seeking to subtly persuade women to expand their role
by doing the same, and much more, in their respective communes.
Even if the combined efforts of NGOs to boost political awareness and involvement
of women results only in the 12 per cent female representation on commune council
expected by the major parties, hopes are high that the process of female political
empowerment they have begun will translate into even larger electoral gains for women
in the 2003 national elections.