The roster of lawmaker hopefuls competing in July’s national election was officially finalized Wednesday, but the host of candidates who will fan out across the country in search of votes promises to be a largely male crowd.
In all, only about 14 percent of all candidates put forward by the 11 political parties contesting the election are women, according to figures from the National Election Committee.
Among the larger parties, the ruling CPP has put forward the most women—20—but that still represents only 16 percent of its 123 National Assembly hopefuls. The SRP is a close second with 17 women, or just under 14 percent of its candidates. The royalists’ numbers are even lower, with Funcinpec and the Norodom Ranariddh Party putting forward only 10 and 11 women respectively—or less than 9 percent of their candidate rosters.
Following the 2003 national election, 22 out of 123 National Assembly seats were taken by women, and it remains to be seen whether that number can be improved this year given the paucity of female candidates.
Despite efforts to bring women into Cambodian politics, it remains a serious challenge, party officials and political observers said.
Women often find themselves torn between the desire to work in politics and the demands of their traditional roles, they said. Also, women are often less educated and lack the experience possessed by their male peers.
“I’m very disappointed to see the candidate women—the number of them—to be so few,” said Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, adding that it is particularly disheartening given that the majority of Cambodians, about 52 percent of the population, are women.
“If women represent more than men in the population and you see so few women candidates, it is inequality. It shows there is discrimination against women,” she said.
Kek Galabru said she has often asked party leaders why they don’t select more women as candidates or for high-ranking posts, and always gets a similar response: “They say, ‘Oh, we don’t have women [who are] educated; we don’t have women [who are] courageous; we don’t have women come to us.’”
The basic problems with women’s participation in politics stem from the public schools and the traditional family roles into which they are placed, Kek Galabru said.
Public schooling is supposed to be free, but in reality, families are forced to pay teachers to get their children educated, she said. As a result, in areas where poverty is the norm, families often can only send some of their children to school. Typically, it’s their sons who go to the classroom, while their daughters stay home.
But an even stronger disincentive is often a woman’s family, Kek Galabru said.
“The husbands, the family, the older members of the family do not support women going into politics…saying, ‘This is for men,’” she said.
Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Development, said she has heard that some women elected to commune council posts last April have already resigned because they could not balance their life in public service with the demands placed on them at home.
“When you promote women to enter politics, you need to introduce mechanisms to liberate, to emancipate, women from the duties of the home,” she said. “There are very good women in politics…. [But] those are the minority. They are widows or single and [financially] capable of going out on their own.”
The pressures of raising a family have a profound effect on the ability of women to gain enough experience to enter Cambodian politics on the national level, said Jerome Cheung, resident country director of the National Democratic Institute.
“The truth of the matter is that in Cambodia, there is a capacity issue,” he said. “All these women that are involved in politics are older—over 50. They no longer need to raise a family, and this appears to be the tradition in Southeast Asia.”
This reality often translates into women who are qualified for local politics, but too inexperienced to participate on the national stage. A man of 55, he noted, may have more than 25 years of experience in politics, whereas a woman of 65 would be more likely to have only five.
For Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, much of the blame for the lack of women candidates lies with the political parties themselves, as most lack concrete internal policies with regard to women.
“They are mostly concentrated on the competition and not on quotas of women candidates or how to promote women,” Koul Panha said, adding that NGO attempts to push the issue have been largely unsuccessful.
“We conduct training; we conduct forums, but it doesn’t necessarily change because the party leaders don’t change,” he said.
Funcinpec has the fewest women candidates of any large party, although one of them, Princess Norodom Arunrasmy, is the party candidate for the premiership.
Funcinpec President Keo Puth Rasmey, who is also the husband of Princess Arunrasmy, said this week that the lack of female candidates was not a reflection of his party’s attitude toward women.
“We have a small quantity, but high quality,” he said of Funcinpec’s women candidates. “We do want more female candidates, but it is not easy to find. Women are less educated than men” in Cambodia, he said.
Keo Puth Rasmey said that as a matter of party policy, if a man and a woman are both equally capable of holding a particular position, Funcinpec would select the woman.
Norodom Ranariddh Party Cabinet Director Muth Channtha said his party is only fielding 11 women, in part because the NRP is a new party and had difficulty finding enough qualified candidates of either sex.
On top of that, he said, family commitments and financial issues excluded many women from participating.
“If they are candidates, more or less, they will have to contribute [money] to…cover their own campaign activity,” he said, which disqualifies many women because in most Cambodian households it is men who are the principle money earners.
Muth Channtha added that the women on the NRP ticket are placed high on the candidate lists, noting that the party’s first candidate in Banteay Meanchey province and the second candidate in Phnom Penh are women.
SRP Deputy Secretary-General Mu Sochua said that she was “not satisfied at all” with the number of women her party was putting forward, but added that the SRP has taken steps to “push that low number of women to the top.”
Mu Sochua, who was formerly minister of Women’s Affairs, said that the SRP has placed most of its women candidates as the first through third candidates in their respective constituencies.
In addition, the SRP has devised a policy by which many individuals that win seats will split their term in the Assembly with another person, meaning that two officials will each serve half terms in the same seat. As a result, a number of women that wouldn’t become lawmakers because of their placement on the candidate list will have an opportunity to gain valuable experience in the Assembly.
Given this shared-term policy, Mu Sochua said that the SRP believes that 14 of its 17 women candidates stand a solid chance of spending some time as a lawmaker in the next mandate.
“The lesson learned by us is that we have to provide our women with opportunities to serve…to get them known, to get them experience, to get them comfortable,” she said.
CPP lawmaker Nguon Nhel, who chairs the ruling party’s campaign committee, said that the lack of women candidates was based in large part on catering to what the people want. The basic issue, he said, was that women often lack the education and experience that voters demand.
“We don’t look down on women, but it’s up to their capacity,” he said.
“We hope the CPP will win the election, because we believe the CPP will push more women into high positions,” he added, noting that Prime Minister Hun Sen had already announced that 200 women would receive deputy governor posts at the district and provincial level.
CPP lawmaker Ho Naun, who chairs the Assembly commission of women’s affairs, said that the ultimate goal of the CPP was reaching a point where at least 30 percent of party posts, including candidates, were women.
In both 2003 and this year, 11 percent of the candidates fielded by the larger parties are women, said Jerome Cheung of NDI, adding that in some cases there is improvement.
The CPP is putting forward six more women than in 2003 and the SRP has three more, according to figures from Comfrel.
Funcinpec is putting fewer women forward than in 2003, but Cheung said that is not surprising given the turmoil that has wracked the royalist movement in the last year and a half.
Most analysts spoken to this week said they favor the introduction of legislation setting quotas for the number of women parties field as candidates-a measure they say has been adopted in many countries around the world.
But quotas do not address the larger social and culture impediments to women entering politics.
Kek Galabru recalled that when her mother, Tong Siv Eng, became Cambodia’s first female National Assembly member in 1958, she had to be pushed into the role by her father.
She said that during that time, her father was willing to take on many of the domestic duties that traditionally fall to Cambodian women. Such commitment and understanding from men will be required if women are ever to take a play a role in politics, she said.
But Chea Vannath said it might be best for now to focus on cultivating those women that have already shown an interest and ability in the political realm and not try to force societal change.
“I think the smaller the progress the more sustainable it is, because it goes along with the society,” she said.
“We are talking about behavioral attitude change. It takes a long time and ongoing…exposure to have a fair share of men and women in the political sphere.”