Notes from the Field

From Cambodia: Women’s Rising Power in Local Government

April 4, 2007

At a public forum in Phnom Penh on March 6th, held in conjunction with International Women’s Day, USAID Mission Director in Cambodia, Erin Soto, announced that, “Very quietly, without great fanfare, Cambodia has made history. The National Election Committee (NEC) has just announced that 20% of registered candidates for the upcoming Commune Council elections are women.  That’s almost 22,000 — an astounding accomplishment and an encouraging number!”

In the first-ever commune council elections held in 2002, only 9% of the total number of candidates who ran were women; they managed to secure 951 out of 11,257 commune council seats, increasing the number of women commune chiefs by nearly tenfold.

What factors explain the steady and significant increase in women’s participation between the upcoming elections and the 2002 elections? Why are more women entering politics at the local level?

Political and economic issues at the local level are particularly pertinent to women’s lives. A recent survey shows that Cambodian women tend to be more aware of community development priorities, such as education, healthcare and the impact of corruption, as a result of both their proximity to communities and their multiple roles within communities. Issues such as low salaries, illnesses from poor working conditions, harassment and exclusion from labor laws affect urban working women disproportionately, thus motivating their entry into local politics. Poverty, land grabbing, corruption and education similarly concern rural women.

Several bureaucratic factors facilitate their entrance into commune politics. First, commune elections constitute a relatively new level in the democratic system of governance”a level in which men are not already entrenched. Second, the level of experience and qualifications necessary for entry into commune council positions is lower than that which is necessary for national positions; thus women are less disadvantaged in competition with men.

Organizations like Women for Prosperity (WFP), a leading Khmer women’s organization which has previously been funded by The Asia Foundation, The National Democratic Institute (NDI), and USAID, have worked to bridge the comparative advantage that men have over women in running for office. WFP encourages women nationwide to stand for office and trains them in running effective campaigns. In 2002, 65 percent of the women elected had received training provided by a women’s professional support network developed by WFP.

Successful women candidates also have the support of their communities. Results of a recent survey show growing popular support for women politicians. Cambodian women are more trusted than their male counterparts on issues of corruption. When respondents were asked, “If you could choose between an equally good male and female candidate, would you be likely to vote for a woman,” 78% of the population said that they would be more likely to vote for the woman candidate.

Government support for women commune council candidates is increasing, although, according to consultations conducted by the World Bank with women in commune councils in Kampong Cham, women still tend to be placed lower on the party lists. Candidates’ positions on a party list are based on the results of a “popularity poll” among party members in the community. The electoral procedures and proportional system do not offer men or women the opportunity to participate as independent candidates. Thus, while building the capacity of women candidates to run for office does contribute to increasing the number of women commune councilors, it is insufficient on its own. The number of women elected to office also depends on the parties’ commitment to increasing the number of women candidates and positioning them higher up the party lists.

Nonetheless, one notable feature of the upcoming elections is the increased number of party registered female candidates.  The Cambodian People Party (CPP) has registered women candidates in every commune, while the Sam Rainsey Party (SRP) has placed women in the top three positions of the party list in some 300 priority communes. Prime Minister Hun Sen has voiced his commitment to encouraging Cambodian women’s participation in political, social and economic affairs as well as the upcoming commune council elections. At a meeting of officials convened to celebrate International Women’s Day, Hun Sen urged, “We must focus our attention on a strategy to increase the maximum number of women who participate in national institutions, in decision-making, from mid-level all the way to base level.”

Despite this display of political resolve, it is still unclear whether politically ambitious women will be confined to inclusion only at local levels of decision-making. One key constraint to women’s participation in civil service is the low number of girls and women in upper secondary and tertiary education. Currently only 0.2 percent of women in the total labor force have a university degree. Women constitute 20% of all university graduates. Given that the Secretariat of Public Functions requires a bachelor’s degree for appointments to senior civil service positions, the gender gap in the civil service is, to some degree, related to the gender gap in higher-level education.

The increasing number of women running for commune council positions may mark an entry point for women in politics. If women are elected to the commune council, they may be able to move into politics at the district or provincial level. Eventually, women may be able to compete at a national level.

Jennifer Yip is a Program Officer at The Asia Foundation’s office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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