In 1979, Prak Maly became the first of four women to be appointed to the post
of chief of one of the Kingdom's 1,606 communes.
Twenty-two years later, the 49-year old Maly's reflections on the nature of her responsibilities
as chief of Phnom Penh's Beoung Keng Kang-1 commune are not much different from that
of her male counterparts.
"...sometimes [handling] even basic issues like road construction and sewerage
can be very big problems because the government has no budget for infrastructure
and our commune doesn't have any major revenue sources either," Maly said.
But while for men the appointment to the position of commune chief has been popularly
perceived as a road to influence and often-dubious sources of wealth, Phnom Penh's
female commune chiefs say their gender puts them under the public scrutiny their
male colleagues need not endure.
"We cannot go to karaoke or resort to drinking when we are stressed," explained
Sy Taun, 51, chief of Psah Thmei-1 Commune.
"We always have to be on our guard, not just to uphold our honor but also of
our positions since Khmer men are quick to point fingers at women or draw all kinds
of conclusions about them."
For Taun, her experiences of having to stay on duty at night and attempts to give
orders to commune police during her initial tenure as a deputy commune chief made
her almost refuse the CPP appointment to commune chief.
Those frustrations are echoed by Seng Vannary, Commune Chief of Olympic Commune,
who says her attempts to get her poor constituency to help finance her development
plans for the commune are routinely "tedious and time consuming".
But in spite of these challenges, all four of the female commune chiefs interviewed
by the Post stated their intention to run as candidates in the Feb 2002 elections
if nominated as candidates by the CPP.
"According to my personal survey, 96% of the people [in the commune] support
my candidacy, but I am still worried because they vote in a secret ballot and [I]
don't know who they'll vote for," Taun said of her electoral chances.
For Pen En, 47, Chief of Psah Kandal-2 Commune, her participation in the coming commune
elections is an articulation of the importance of women taking a prominent role in
the grassroots political process.
"Women have not just the right but the responsibility to participate in public
affairs. It's not only good for them but for other women... to counter the popular
belief that they are only good for kitchens," En said.