For more than a year, Kim Nath Sim has been traveling the country training ordinary women—farmers, housewives, shopkeepers—in the fine art of becoming SRP politicians.
She runs classes on public speaking and fundraising, and makes sure the women are schooled on the issues and know which ones matter most in their communities.
Nominated to attend the training by district or provincial officials, the women have discernable potential. But they still often enter the training quiet or uneasy.
If all goes well, however, they will exit as potential candidates for next June’s commune elections.
“Women have improved their capacity. Now they’re understanding about politics and democracy more clearly,” says Ms Nath Sim.
All of which is good news for the Sam Rainsy Party. The party has engaged Ms Nath Sim, along with 11 other master trainers, to swell the ranks of qualified female candidates.
Next June, if things go according to plan, women will make up 20 percent of the party’s elected commune councilors—a twofold increase from the last election.
“A confident woman runs a better chance of getting votes than men,” explains SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who is president of the party’s women’s wing and oversees the training. “Women are much more persuasive. They cover more issues, they have the skill of making it more personal, less of a party issue. And that counts a lot at the local level.”
The SRP are hardly the only ones to realize the political currency of women candidates.
Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap says female politicians have long been a focus for his party. Just over 17 percent of CPP councilors elected in 2007 were women, according to the National Election Committee. In 2012, they are shooting for 30 percent, says Mr Yeap. “We have trained them in the civil society and with NGOs to understand women’s rights,” he said. “We have trained them about leadership and other jobs. We trained the women in all classes…. We have women working at all levels.”
And while the Human Rights Party has no firm plan for upping the numbers of female officials, they too know the importance of such a move.
“We encourage them to be in politics, we encourage them as much as possible,” says HRP spokesman Pol Ham.
But no party seems to embrace a movement for female politicians with the fervor of the SRP.
“We want to engender the policy of our party,” says Ms Sochua. “We are honest about the different philosophies, different ideas, however, because we are confronting the issue, the women’s movement of our SRP party is really getting a lot of support from the men.”
This translates to a highly formulated training program. Women identified as potential candidates are invited to attend daylong training sessions. Their numbers will be whittled down over the coming months and the most electable will receive additional training and eventually be listed on the ballot.
Beyond basics, the women are drilled in identifying the concerns facing their potential constituencies and taught the necessity of networking.
“When I go in I speak a lot about the national issues, gender-based violence and corruption. But then I say: ‘These issues are not going to make you win. You will win when you define what exactly in this commune matters. In this commune, let’s say, you have seven villages. Not until you have met with the seven villages, will you know the issues,’” says Ms Sochua. “Do you know the issues, do you have the networks? You need to build up the network because you alone cannot get elected.”
Though campaigning is verboten until a month prior to the election, there are no laws against becoming a familiar face. And the payoff of such a concerted effort may be high.
“I would suggest the political party which puts female candidates in, they will get an advantage,” says Koul Panha, executive director for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
“If a commune has a female councilor, domestic issues are better covered. Women understand the local issues very well. They do not treat themselves as elite. Men are outside the village more often and don’t know the local issues.”
According to Mr Panha, health, education, sanitation and domestic violence are usually high on the docket of both voters and female candidates. And while some senior politicians still grasp firmly to the belief that voters are not comfortable with female officials, Mr Panha said Comfrel research suggested the opposite.
“According to our study, voters are very progressive. They see the importance of women being elected officials.”
But if the rewards are high, so are the obstacles. It is not enough to stake the candidates, he says: There has to be massive amounts of follow up and support post-election. Mr Panha knows this first hand. Comfrel runs training sessions of their own and monitors the activity of female officials.
In the years following the 2007 elections, said Mr Panha, repeated visits revealed that female councilors from opposition parties were defecting in large numbers to the CPP.
“There is an environment of fear CPP creates to scare them. They cannot stay in the commune with the opposition party because women can be more easily intimidated than men,” said Mr Panha. “They are marginalized, isolated and not supported.”
Parties “must keep monitoring what the position is of the female commune councilors—what struggles they have, what obstacles they face—in order to help long term.”
(Additional reporting by Sok Sidon and Phorn Bopha)