Women Candidates Urged to Run in Elections

A recent Sam Rainsy Party seminar on the commune elections drew 49 potential male candidates—and one female.

“We are trying to find more women candidates, but it is very, very hard,” one seminar organizer said with a sigh.

It’s not just the Sam Rainsy Party that is having problems recruiting females. The CPP and Funcinpec also want more wo­men to run in the February 2002 commune elections, and they too are having trouble finding candidates.

The Sam Rainsy Party is trying again today, opening a three-day seminar on women in politics at the Lucky Star Hotel. Speakers are coming from as far afield as Germany, the US, and Sweden.

And that may be a part of the problem. While gender parity is a popular issue in developed na­tions it may be creating unrealistic expectations in countries like Cambodia.

The Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec both say they want one-third of their candidates for next year’s commune elections to be female. But Minister of Infor­mation Lu Lay­sreng, a Funcinpec leader, said, 30 percent may not be practical, given the educational and social barriers preventing women from seeking political office.

“We wish to have more [female candidates], but we should not set a numerical limit,” he said. “Their education and leadership skills are still very limited.”

He notes that even a developed country like the US falls far short of gender parity, at least when it comes to high office. Of the 535 members of the current US Con­gress, only 74 are female.

“And that’s in a country of more than 200 million people,” he said.

Ke Sovannaroth, who monitors gender equality issues as a member of the Sam Rainsy Party’s “shadow cabinet,” is a believer.

“I think that women are able to do the job, because they are very courageous,” she said. “We would like to push more women to run as candidates.”

Men Sam An, the CPP Stan­ding Committee member in charge of women’s affairs, said, “We try to encourage women to run in the election, but whether she wants to or does not want to is her decision.”

She said she believes that those who win office will do a good job, but notes that “Cam­bodian women are different from foreign women, because they care [most] about their children and families.”

Only two women head government ministries—Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua and Minister of Culture Princess Bopha Devi, both of Funcin­pec. In the National As­sembly and Senate, there are more than a dozen female members.

Cambodian political organizations have been working to encour­age female candidates since at least 1997, when Princess Norodom Marie Ranariddh of Funcinpec called for more female participation.

“The voices of Cambodian wo­men can be heard only when more Cambodian women take the challenge to stand as candidates for the local and national elections,” she said at the time.

But last year, women attending a Sam Rainsy Party seminar on female candidacy said they are reluc­t­ant to run because they didn’t want to face threats and inti­midation from commune officials.

“I got a lot of threats during the 1993 and 1998 elections,” said one woman, adding that she did not think she would run for commune council in 2002.

NGO’s have launched several ef­forts to convince women to run, including TV spots and videos prom­oting female leadership.

Gender equity experts who visited from Sweden recently said gender parity can’t be achieved overnight.

“Gender equality education should start” in early childhood, said Fredrik Lundkvist, who specializes in gender equity at the Swedish Association of Local Authorities.

“We should present new study materials to children” that show women participating fully in all walks of life, he said.

Lundkvist was part of a Swed­ish delegation that visited Phnom Penh to discuss gender issues, including how to encourage women to run in the commune elections.

Laila Bjurling, a member of the Swedish Parliament and a specialist in women’s issues, said true social and political independence is not possible until women have economic independence.

In Cambodia, that may take a while. While more women than men work here, they earn less and are concentrated in low-skill, low-prestige positions—or work at jobs that don’t generate a paycheck, such as rice farming.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Women’s and Veter­ans’ Affairs, 42 percent of women who work do not get paid cash for their labors, while only 17 percent of men work at unpaid jobs.

Ministry officials also said Cam­bodian laws are stacked against women, many of whom are left poor or even homeless after div­orce because men hold the title to the family home.

Bjurling said the situation is much better in Sweden, where laws divide responsibility for children fairly and parents receive generous benefits.

For example, she said, Swedish law makes it easier for parents to take care of their children. While many cultures frown on parents taking time off work to care for sick offspring, in Sweden even fathers are able to take as many as to seven days off work—at 80 percent of their salary—when a child is ill.

Another difficulty in Cambodia is that few women get enough ed­u­cation to hold down high-pres­tige, high-paying jobs. Ac­cording to the last census in 1998, only one in five females completed primary school.

The Swedish visitors said that many of these difficulties can be solved or at least improved by wise government spending. Be­tween 1995 to 1999, they said, the Swedish government spent about $3 million annually to en­courage women to complete postgraduate studies.

(Reporting by Jody Mc­Phillips, Ana Nov and Van Roeun)



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