As Elections Loom, a Lack of Female Candidates

Cambodia looks set to fail its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of increasing representation of women in the National Assembly after the political parties contesting the July 28 national elections registered fewer-than-hoped female candidates.

The MDG on promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women says that the Na­tional Assembly needs to have a higher proportion of female representatives, and set a target of 30 percent by 2015.

Under the current government, only 21 percent of National Assembly lawmakers are female, according to U.N. figures, and the forthcoming ballot is the last chance for Cambodia to meet the Millennium goal by 2015, as each government mandate lasts five years.

While each of the eight parties taking part in the election put forward an average of 260 candidates and reserve candidates, men feature far more prominently than women and of those registered, only a handful of women were put at the top of the voting lists.

Placement on the list affects the outcome in terms of gender representation, because when a party wins seats in a constituency, they are given first to candidates at the top of the ballot list. Those listed further down the list have much less chance of gaining a seat, unless a party wins multiple seats in a single constituency.

According to official figures provided by the National Election Committee (NEC), the ruling Cambodian People’s Party registered 20 women with another 28 in reserve, Funcinpec registered 12 female candidates with 19 in reserve and the joint-opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) registered only 12 fe­male candidates with 19 in re­serve. Even the little-known Leagues for Democracy party did better than the main opposition, registering 15 women candidates and placing a further 36 on the reserve list. The country’s smallest parties—the Cambodian Na­tionality Party registered 21 women and 34 in reserve, while the Republic Democracy Party put forward 37 women candidates and 52 in reserve.

Similar figures for the Khmer Anti-Poverty Party and the Khmer Economic Development Party have not been made available yet.

At the top of the ballot lists, the numbers of women shrink even further.

Of women candidates in the number one spot, the CPP has two, the CNRP has four, Funcinpec has three and the Leagues for Democracy has three. The Cambodian Nationality Party has one.

“There are less female candidates than previous elections,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), adding that he estimates only 15 percent of lawmakers would be women in the next government mandate.

“I’m really concerned that they did not reach the same number of current female parliamentarians,” Mr. Panha said.

One of the reasons for this, he opined, was a focus on the fierce competition that has raged between the CPP and opposition CNRP. But another explanation may be the male-dominated political landscape, and the fact that men in Cambodia have most of the money and power.

Coupled with a lack of awareness and understanding of the need to have a fairer gender balance at a decision-making level makes the low numbers “very discouraging,” Mr. Panha said.

“I think the political parties have no real willingness to put females in as candidates,” he added.

“We promised to the world to meet the Millennium Development Goal to reach 30 percent of females in Parliament, so this is our commitment, and we think that decision-making should include females that can make more right decisions,” he said.

CNRP election candidate Mu Sochua, who was formerly a lawmaker for the SRP and the minister of women’s affairs, said not many women came forward to stand in the election despite an effort by the party to include them.

“There are many reasons [why not enough women are registered],” Ms. Sochua said. “Our party has tried to identify women, but the ones we feel were qualified did not want to be part of the fight for a higher position.

“This is one of the MDGs that will not be met by Cambodia. There’s not enough support in society or state that says women can make a difference,” she said.

On Thursday, Ms. Sochua co-chaired a CNRP meeting at which the party’s policy on women was discussed—taking care of women’s physical, mental and reproductive health is a priority, officials said.

At the talk, CNRP Kompong Speu province reserve candidate Kim Natsim said money can be a major obstacle for women who want to run in elections, because they have to fund their own campaigns.

“I think I am active and popular enough, but I do not have so much money to contribute to the campaign,” she said.

Ros Sopheap, deputy chair of the Committee to Promote Women in Politics (CPWP), said the failure to register more women was a “disappointment” and a missed opportunity to rebalance gender perspectives and put more focus on health and education at a decision-making level.

“Through our dialogue and forums, we found that even the young women who are highly educated got advice from their families not to play politics, be­cause it’s still a dangerous issue for society at the moment,” Ms. Sopheap added.

CPP lawmaker Ho Naun said she thought the CPP had been “successful” in getting more women involved politically, but added that “women should strengthen their capacity so that they can participate—sometimes, women themselves are not confident enough.”

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