Cambodia’s National Police chief had said he wants to increase female recruitment into the force this year, in part to reduce “inappropriate” clashes between male police and female protesters, though observers were sceptical that simply hiring more women would solve endemic problems in the force.
In a speech on Friday, National Police Chief General Neth Savoeun said a mere 5.7 per cent of police officers were women – less than 3,000 out of a total of 50,000 officers.
Savoeun said political protests in 2013 – “under the incitement of the opposition party” – had highlighted “a weak point” for the force.
“We held a woman lawmaker [Mu Sochua] because she had committed crimes and violence that risked society, but at Phnom Penh’s intervention unit, there were no women, so men arrested her,” he said.
“We had to search her, and at that time we did not equipment, so we use our hands to check her. When people saw it, it looked inappropriate.”
In his speech, Savoeun also maintained that women were more “difficult” and costly to employ.
“When we send male forces to the province, for example, they take a hammock and they can rest and work. But if we send women, we have to think about accommodation,” he said.
He went on to say the government prides itself on gender equality, despite acknowledging an apparent lack of women in leadership positions.
“We say there is no discrimination, but looking at the whole, currently there are no women who are the directors of the department or provincial and district police chiefs,” he said.
Savoeun did not cite a gender quota, but his deputy, Touch Narath, said the bodyguard department was aiming for its force to ultimately be between 20 and 30 per cent women, according to the National Police website.
Ros Sopheap, executive director Gender and Development for Cambodia (GADC), warned that while more women in the police could be a positive step towards equality, it could also be a shallow one, adding that the armed forces “do not work for the public interest; they work for the [Cambodian People’s] party”.
“Deploying female forces to intervene during demonstrations will reduce violence and harassment, but they have to allow women to make big decisions, not just wait for an order,” she said.
“They recruit more women into their field just to show they are promoting women’s rights, but in fact they do not provide them power.”
Chan Sokunthea, head of women and children’s rights at ADHOC, echoed the need for more power for women in the security services, noting that those protesting land grabs are often disproportionately female.
“We really need to see women in the police forces, in the high positions, in decision-making,” she said.
“We need change, we want to interest women in applying for all offices and we need gender balance in the workplace.”
Additional reporting by Erin Handley