Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Political parties want to win elections

By Cat Barton and Sam Rith
Phnom Penh Post, Issue 16 / 07, April 6 - 19, 2007

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.

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 landscape.

"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 votes.

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 candidates.

"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."

Personal battles

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 won.

"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 [2007] 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 Sopheap.

"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 minister."

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