So they need popular candidates, and female candidates are very
Record number of women seek office
In theory, political equality arrived in Cambodia in 1955 when women were granted
the right to vote and allowed to stand for election. Three years later, the Kingdom's
first female parliamentarian, Tong Siv Eng, was elected to the National Assembly.
Mu Sochua, Secretary-general of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, on the campaign trail in Bathey, Kampong Cham province. The SRP fielded six percent fewer female candidates in the 2007 commune council elections than it did in 2002. The CPP increased their number of female candidates by four percent.
In practice, however, political equality has been slow to materialize. Half a century
after Siv Eng's success at the polls, only two out of 25 ministers, eight out of
127 secretaries of state, and 15 out of 135 undersecretaries of state are women.
Experts point to Cambodia's high rate of female illiteracy and Chbab Srey-induced
female passivity as two of the main factors that deter women from entering politics.
But with the country's first district-level elections five years ago, women began
finding their place on the political stage, and the ensuing five years have helped
cement their contributions to the country's social and political development.
Twice as many female candidates ran in Sunday's commune elections than did in 2002,
and the emergence of female candidates is quietly reshaping the Cambodian political
"As a female candidate it is very hard to persuade citizens to elect you,"
said Kim Chansopath, council member in Sangkat Boeng Keng Kong I. "As a female
commune council member, you have to struggle to convince both men and women that
you are able to do this job. [But] there are only two important things in politics:
whether you win or lose - not whether you are man or woman."
Coming to the party
Commune elections run on a party-list system. A voter selects a party, not a candidate.
The election winners are the top-listed party members from the party with the most
In 2002, 1,161 female candidates were ranked in the top three places on party lists.
In 2007, that number leapt to 2,328. The increase is because political parties have
realized that female candidates win votes, said Pok Nanda, executive director of
Women for Prosperity (WfP), a local NGO that provides support and training to female
"Political parties want to win elections," she said. "So they need
popular candidates, and female candidates are very popular. Women are visible at
the local level, sincere, serious - they care. This is what the parties and the voters
have seen of their performance since 2002."
Over the last five years, voters have become more open to female candidates, and
women more eager to participate in politics, Nanda said. Female involvement in local
level politics since the 2002 commune elections has helped break down the widely
held view that politics is dirty, corrupt, violent and best left to men, she said.
"How do you get your child to go to school?" Nanda asked. "Where do
you take your children when they are sick? How much does this service cost? When
you tell women this is politics, then they want to get involved."
Their involvement has been beneficial, said Nanda. Some of the 2002 female commune
councilors that WfP have worked with have proved remarkably effective at reducing
corruption in their communities and appear to have helped usher in a new era of transparency
and accountability in local level politics, she said.
"They encourage everyone to work as a council not as individuals," she
said. "In some cases they have demanded that the commune chief and the clerk
have meetings with the whole council about the budget which reduces the risk of corruption.
We have told them 'if your council is corrupt, you are corrupt.' They see this and
work to find ways to stop their council being corrupt."
Changing the agenda
Increased female participation is also injecting new issues into the traditionally
male-dominated agendas of local-level politics, said Maraile Goergen, who has carried
out German government-funded research on female commune councilors across Cambodia.
"The work is gendered," she said. "Women focus on healthcare, education,
and other services whereas men focus on infrastructure, law and order, security.
But due to the fact the work is gendered, women have become key to commune councils.
And as their confidence grows, they are taking on more work."
Women in rural Cambodia, as in many countries, tend to carry out more than their
fair share of labor and consequently may have a more immediate understanding of,
and better ability to articulate, the problems facing their families and communities,
said Canadian Ambassador Donnica Pottie.
"There are many intelligent women living in rural areas where they have limited
access to education," she said. "Yet they are still very bright and very
able to make an enormous contribution to their community."
Female commune councilors have become so popular, and their impact so beneficial,
that their numbers are increasing despite the lack of quota system or affirmative
action, said Mu Sochua, secretary-general of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).
"We had to stay within the cultural context and change from within, but now
real change is coming," she said. "As women we have had to prove to ourselves,
as well as others, that we are capable."
Although there is a scarcity of politically experienced Cambodian women, the 2002
influx of commune councilors have worked hard and grown noticeably in both confidence
and capacity, Sochua said.
"We are really seeing more high-quality candidates," she said. "They
are working to boost their skills, to improve their education and, step by step,
they are managing it."
Along party lines
Though the overall number of female candidates for commune council positions has
increased, the breakdown along party lines demonstrates how important support and
training is to keep women in politics.
In 2002, 13 percent of the CPP's candidates were women.
Funcinpec did moderately better with 14 percent, and the SRP fielded slightly more
than 20 percent female candidates.
But according to the National Election Commission (NEC) figures for 2007, the CPP
fielded 17 percent female candidates, Funcinpec managed 19 percent, and the SRP dropped
to 14 percent.
"We have learned our lesson," said Sochua. "We didn't provide enough
support for our female candidates. Women are subject to a double victimization -
a general cultural discrimination against their gender, and then a real antipathy
towards women in politics. We are already talking now about how we can support [female
SRP commune officials] more in future."
In contrast, the CPP was able to increase its proportion of women candidates because
it could provide a more comprehensive support network, said councilmember Chansopath.
"The CPP offers a lot of training for female candidates," she said. "There
are many female candidates in the party and they are given lots of support and help."
For Khim Makara, a 33-year-old female Funcinpec candidate, her party's political
decline has reduced the amount of both party and public support available to her.
"I organized my election campaign myself, but I've not received many votes because
of the conflict in the party," she said. "As a female candidate I have
endured a lot of criticism. People say I can't work as well as a man."
While campaign support from their parties helps, female candidates still face a personal
struggle against conservative social values. But that battle, too, is slowly being
"In 2002 it was really hard personally for females in politics as their husbands
often didn't support their work," said Ros Sopheap, executive director, Gender
and Development for Cambodia (GAD). "This time  I think more female candidates
will have support from their families. The husbands see that they get benefits, for
example more status in their village if their wife is a commune councilor. But many
women still have a problem balancing domestic work and party work."
Not only is it important to encourage the families of female commune officials to
support them, it is imperative to encourage families to value their daughters' educations
more so that the next generation of female politicians has a chance to develop, said
"In Cambodian society women have far fewer opportunities than men so it is important
to target them," she said. "We offer training to female politicians, and
we try to educate parents to help them see why it is important not to just let their
daughters drop out of school."
Special measures should be taken to help Cambodian girls pursue a higher education,
said Pottie. Factors such as a lack of restrooms in schools and acceptable dorm arrangements
away from home result in many females never finishing their education, she said.
"A lack of education is an impediment to entering politics," she said.
"Not a major one, but it is a huge impediment to economic growth."
The success of women in politics has ruffled a few male feathers, said WfP's Nanda.
"There may be some resistance at first," she said. "But we are not
trying to take over the country, we just want to be equals, we just want to be allowed
to enter politics and participate in the decision making process in our country.
We don't want to see ignored, excluded, ignorant women wasting their lives and their
potential in our country."
For Chansopath, the opportunities for women in politics are endless.
"I believe Cambodia could have a female prime minister," she said. "I
see many strong women in Cambodia, women are sometimes stronger than men. I think
that in the next three or four years you could have a female candidate for prime