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Women make few gains at polls

Women supporters and candidates attend a meeting with opposition leader Kem Sokha last month at the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh.
Women supporters and candidates attend a meeting with opposition leader Kem Sokha last month at the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Women make few gains at polls

Despite vows by both major political parties to increase female representation in politics, women made up only a small proportion of commune chiefs chosen in this month’s elections, though some gains were made by the opposition party.

For the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, preliminary National Election Committee results show 35 women were elected commune chiefs, while an estimated 60 to 70 women from the ruling party were elected, according to party officials.

This corresponds to between 5.15 percent and 6 percent of all CPP commune chiefs, within the range of the previous 5.85 percent total, and an overall drop from 93 female commune chiefs elevated in the 2012 elections.

According to Ke Bunkheang, chief of the CPP youth working group, around half of the 132 first-ranked female candidates were elected as commune chiefs this time around.

For the CNRP, female commune chiefs will govern in 7.3 percent of the roughly 480 communes won. After the last elections, the opposition Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party – which later merged to form the CNRP – posted just two female commune chiefs, just 5 percent of the 40 commune chief spots the parties won.

Still, CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua praised the significant gains among female ranks. “We expected perhaps 10 commune chiefs, and now we’ve got 35,” she said.

Duch Piseth from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights did not share Sochua’s enthusiasm, however, saying in an email that the small increase to 95 female chiefs in the 1,646 commune chiefs nationwide was insufficient.

“Women’s representation remains far . . . behind the Cambodian Millennium Development Goals of the Cambodian government that target 25 percent of women’s representation in commune councils by 2015,” he said. He recommended having female candidates in the top rankings on a quarter of all party lists for the national elections in 2018. “Making public statements to support women candidates is not enough.”

CPP spokesman Sous Yara said nothing could be done about the relatively low number of high-ranking female candidates. “It’s a democratic process, they need to be elected first,” he said.

But as The Post discovered in interviews last month, some female candidates from both parties found themselves pushed down the party lists before the commune elections.

Thoung Someurn, a ruling Cambodian People’s Party candidate, was selected by locals for her commune’s top slot, but was pushed down to the fourth in Koki commune, in Kandal province. This June 4, the CNRP took the commune seat after three straight CPP mandates – an upset that Someurn hopes will push male leaders to support female candidates.

“It’s good that the CNRP won the election [in our commune], as I believe my leaders may realise: They didn’t put a woman as the first candidate, and now they lost. Men think that as women we’re weak, we don’t have enough capacity to work, and put men in the first, second and third position, but finally they lost,” Someurn said.

Departing Commune Chief Kong Chheng denied gender bias was at play. “It’s not about male or female candidates,” he said. “The villagers don’t care who the commune chief is, they just focus on the party, and they want change,” he said.

In Krek commune, in Tbong Khmum province, Chou Ry was initially slotted fourth on the CNRP list, and then fifth. Just briefly before the elections, she was pushed down further to the sixth position – which cost her a council position.

She said gender discrimination was one of the reasons why she had left the CPP and joined the CNRP. “I thought they have better policies, and better leadership,” she said. “But now it looks like I moved from black to black,” she said. “Men always look down on women, and think women can’t handle the work properly.”

After this experience she said she might throw in the towel as a politician. “I think I’ll go back to being a farmer,’’ Ry said.

Meanwhile, in Kampong Chhnang’s Rolea Ba’ier commune, one female candidate, Meas Serelyeak, said that the CPP was recognising her skills – as a secretary. She was asked by the commune chief-elect to be his assistant after she was allegedly pushed down the ballot from the number one position. “I will get a salary from the commune,” she said.

In contrast to candidates who felt discriminated against, future CNRP Commune Chief Try Naiyeng from Kampong Cham’s Moha Leap commune, said she felt sufficiently supported. “I feel a bit nervous and am afraid that I cannot handle it very well . . . But the CNRP [district] president told me that they are willing to help and support me as always,” she said, adding that she would promote gender equality in her commune.

Thara Teav, chief of the CNRP North American Women’s Movement, was encouraged by the opposition’s gains and said that the group expected more women to take office after next year’s National Assembly elections. “We did not expect such a high number,” she said. Her movement had provided financial support to female candidates by collecting donations in the US, because, she said, “women are needed in politics”.

Thida Khus, executive director of women’s rights NGO Silaka, called the low representation among women proof that “there are still a lot of obstacles among the gatekeepers in the parties”. She called on the National Election Committee to introduce a “zipper system”, whereby parties would be obligated to alternate male and female candidates on party lists.

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