12,055 of the 75,244 commune council candidates are women. The numbers are impressive, but they don’t tell the whole story.
At 16 percent of the total, the number of women running next year is about half what party leaders had hoped. But given the traditionally subordinate status of women in Cambodian society, activists say it’s an excellent start.
“This is a step-by-step process,” says Mu Sochua, Minister of Womens Affairs. If even one-quarter of those women are elected, she says, that would mean 3,000 women elected nationwide. “If we compare that to the current situation, where four of the [1,621] commune chiefs are women, we have taken a giant step to mobilize women.”
The three major parties are each running more than 20,000 candidates, the Cambodian Peoples Party topping the list with 25,691, followed by Funcinpec with 24,556 and the Sam Rainsy Party with 23,657.
Party order is reversed, however, when it comes to the percentage of candidates who are female, with the SRP running 4,828 women or 20 percent; Funcinpec with 3,376 women or nearly 14 percent; and the CPP with 3,380 women or 13 percent.
It’s unclear how many of those women will be elected. Under the Cambodian system, voters choose parties rather than specific candidates, and then each party fills its seats according to the candidate list, with Candidate 1 getting the first seat, Candidate 2 the second, and so on.
A study of party lists by the non-governmental organization Gender and Development for Cambodia shows women top the list in only 15 of 1621 communes, while the number of women in the next three spots is “very small.”
Mu Sochua says all three parties face difficulties in convincing male candidates to step aside for women. But, she says, the women who have found the courage to stand up and run are being changed by the experience, even if they don’t win.
“I have seen so much empowerment,” she says. All parties are training their female candidates, “and they come out with a great deal of knowledge and a sense of future possibilities.”
In mature democracies like the US, women hold less than 25 percent of elective offices at state or lower levels. The current US Congress has 73 female members—the most ever—or 13 percent.
By comparison, Cambodian women hold 7 percent of national elective offices and less than 3 percent at the district or lower level, according to Gender and Development for Cambodia.