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The gender agenda Women and political representation

The gender agenda Women and political representation


The Sam Rainsy Party teaches female activists how to campaign in the run-up to the election.

C ambodia's women thought they were at the start of an equal future in 1958, when women were granted the vote and the first female parliamentarian, Mrs Tong Siv Eng, was elected to the National Assembly.

But since her success at the polls almost half a century ago, decades of civil war have taken a heavy toll on the country's economic and social structure. As a result, the women's liberation movement seems stuck in the Sixties. Only two out of 26 ministers are women. There are just three female secretaries of state and six female under-secretaries of state.

The commune elections in February last year were hailed as a chance for women to get involved in politics at the grassroots level, but their hopes were dashed when only a handful were elected. A glance at the National Election Committee's candidate lists for the July 27 general election shows this year's results will likely prove little different.

Only 10.6 percent of the 123 primary candidates of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) are women. Funcinpec and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) are not far ahead: each has 12.2 percent female representation on their 123-strong primary candidate lists.

Initiatives by women politicians to improve the situation have rarely been successful. Mu Sochua, Minister for Women's and Veterans Affairs and a leading member of Funcinpec, fought for the introduction of a quota system before the commune elections. But, she says, her efforts were rebuked.

"The ruling party laughed at me, and the Prime Minister said I should never use the word quota again," she says. "Let the CPP come up with alternatives, let them talk about how they would run this ministry. Because when the Prime Minister speaks against it, the women from the ruling party step out."

Similar frustrations abound in the run-up to the general election next month. Few women feel there is enough female representation on their party's candidate lists. SRP parliamentarian Tioulong Saumura, whose husband is the opposition leader, says she "fought like hell" to have more women on its candidate list. The problem was the dearth of experienced women.

"There are not enough [female candidates], I would have liked to see more," she says. "I understand we have to get the best people, but I just do not have enough women. For the commune elections I had to turn down 20 candidates because they couldn't write their name. When compared to male candidates, they just couldn't stand up."

Each of the three main parties claims to be leading in the representation of women. Ork Kimhan, the CPP's cabinet officer, says the CPP has the highest representation of women at 14.75 percent. But that figure is taken from both the primary candidate list and the reservation lists, which consists of candidates who will be chosen if those on the primary drop out.

The SRP and Funcinpec also claim to have the highest female representation, citing the high placing of women on the candidates list as evidence. Ok Socheat, Funcinpec's election spokesperson, predicts that ten of its 15 female candidates will be elected. SRP election spokesperson Ung Bun Ang says the opposition has women at the top of four of its constituency lists, more than any other party.

The placement of women on the candidate lists is always a contentious issue. If they appear low down on the primary list it can give the impression of high representation, when in reality they have little chance of being elected. The seats are allocated in the order of the names on the candidate list, which means that if female candidates are not well-placed on a constituency's list, the move is justifiably seen as a publicity stunt rather than a genuine attempt to involve more women in the political process.

Prior to the commune elections, all three main parties pledged to try and achieve 30 percent representation of women. All fell woefully short. NEC figures showed that the CPP's women council members comprise around 6 percent of its total number, while Funcinpec scored less than 2 percent. The SRP says around 7 percent of its commune council members are women.

But despite disappointment across the female contingent of all parties, many think Mu Sochua's quota system is a pipedream-especially given that 80 percent of women are functionally illiterate and only 5 percent of girls finish high school.

"We need to have quality, not just quantity," says the SRP's Bun Ang. "Gender is not the only factor we consider. It goes back to education and culture, and that can't change overnight. We can't go on gender alone. That would not be right."

The SRP's Saumura is particularly critical of introducing such a system at the present time.

"As long as we remain in a dictatorial system and men and women are submitted to oppression, then it is irrelevant that we say women should have more representation, that women should be on par," she argues. "As long as there is no real rule of law, as long as there is an unjust judiciary, nobody will care about women. I think for the time being, a quota is useless."

Saumura says tackling the root of the problem should be a priority, as the low representation of women in politics is symptomatic of wider social problems.

The reasons why so few women participate in politics were explored at a forum that began on June 9. At the forum, entitled 'Promotion of Women's Participation in Local Politics', NGO workers talked about the pressures women are under to conform to social expectations. This prevents them stepping out of their traditional roles and forging political careers.

"The issue is about the culture," Keat Sukun, director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, told the conference. "Women's desire is very strong. They want to help the country, but the barriers of culture prevent them from entering politics."

Saumura says that was certainly her experience.

"I was raised as a standard little girl. Being a leader was not supposed to be part of my role. I was not prepared to be in politics," she says. "I come from a family of seven daughters, no boys. It was a nightmare for my father. He said he had no children, only girls. You are denied your existence from the beginning."

Attendees at the conference said the reluctance of families to send their daughters to school was depriving a generation of women of an education. Without that base, they would be unable to compete with men on a level playing field.

Security was also raised as an area of concern. Three women candidates were murdered just a few days before the commune elections. A spokesperson for the NGO Women for Prosperity (WfP), which works with female commune officials, said that even when women made it into positions of power, they still felt threatened.

"Women complain about their hardship in politics," she told attendees. "The first thing is security. They suffer discrimination, especially from some of the commune chiefs. Their voices are very few and they can't do anything. They just listen, and are forced to sign and agree."

Participants said that the government could tackle this by creating a safer political environment for all candidates and by bringing suspects involved in political killings to trial. The WfP spokesperson concluded that more needed to be done about the economic barriers women face.

"When they are elected to be councilor, they only get 60-70,000 riel per month, which is not enough to support their family," she explained. "The government needs to take this into consideration, especially with widows, otherwise women cannot participate in politics."

Funcinpec's Ok Socheat says money is the main reason the royalists are not fielding more female candidates. Male candidates fund their own campaigns, but women need financing from Funcinpec, and apparently there isn't enough to go around.

"I think we should spend more money, but we don't have foreign money, we don't have any funding," he says. "It's only money. There is no other discrimination."

When it comes to solving the problem in the long term, women in the main political parties all have similar ideas-to train a new generation of women so that with each election, there will be more women available to fill the gap.

"Now is not the right time for women's voices to be heard," says Saumura. "If men can open up the space for freedom with the help of women, then let them do it. And when there is more room, we can step in. I'm preparing women and building up their muscles for this."

What does seem certain from the candidate lists is that the current low representation of women in politics will be little different after the July vote. Mu Sochua acknowledges that changing the situation will take time, but maintains it can be achieved if enough energy is devoted to bringing women's education and awareness up to and above the level of men's education.

"We have special programs teaching women how to speak in public and how to talk to the media," she says. "We are changing behaviors, but we know that changing attitudes will take time. My whole energy and investment has to be with women."


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