Notes from the Field

Cambodia’s Women Local Leaders Take Charge

March 6, 2013

This year, the Cambodian Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ 5-year strategic plan, known as the Neary Rattanak III, which aims to ensure gender equality for women, comes to a close. While serious obstacles remain, women have made great strides in Cambodia, particularly in the area of political participation.

Today, 21 percent of Cambodia’s National Assembly members are women. This is a significant increase from only 6 percent during the first national election in 1993. To promote women’s participation at the subnational decision-making level, the government has taken action to appoint a woman deputy governor for each province. On June 3, 2012, Cambodia held its third commune elections. Of the total 11,459 councilors elected, 2,038 (18%) are women. This is an increase of 3 percent from the 2007 elections, in which 15 percent (1,663 of 11,353) were women, and it is a significant increase of 112 percent from the first elections in 2002, in which only 8.5 percent of commune councilors elected were women (954 out of 11,261).

While greater women’s representation in the National Assembly and on local commune councils has brought much-needed awareness of women’s issues to the country’s broad development challenges, persistent obstacles remain, including the traditional neglect of education for girls. In upper secondary school there are 66 girls to every 100 boys, and at the university level, there are 48 girls to every 100 boys. At the same time, deeply rooted social norms discourage women from pursuing formal leadership positions in the male-dominated political arena.

Since 2002, Cambodia has held three commune elections with a gradual increase in women representation. As an elected government, commune councils play important roles in governing the commune administration and act as agents of the central government. In terms of local commune affairs, the councils promote and support good governance by managing and using existing resources in a sustainable manner to meet the basic needs of the communes and serving the common interests of the citizens. Their day-to-day responsibilities are wide-ranging: from maintaining security and public order within their communes and arranging for necessary public services to promoting social and economic development and protecting and conserving the environment, natural resources, and cultural sites in their districts.

With support from the European Union, The Asia Foundation has worked in partnership with Women for Prosperity, a local NGO based in Phnom Penh, to build the capacity and confidence of 128 women commune councilors from 106 communes in three Northeastern provinces of Cambodia, so that they can work more effectively and have a greater influence on development and policy-making decisions in their districts. Through a series of participant-led forums, women councilors were able to share concerns, develop strategies to improve performance, and foster a peer network of women leaders.

Cambodia Women Council Network

Since 2002, Cambodia has held three commune elections with a gradual increase in women representation. Through a series of participant-led forums, women councilors were able to develop networks to share concerns and develop strategies to improve performance.

As one commune councilor, Nou Khman Karn from Chey Uddom Commune, Lumphat District Rattanak Kiri, told me: “I was trembling every time I was asked to speak, but this feeling has long gone now. I have improved my public speaking a lot and I feel confident voicing my concerns in front of male commune councilors.”

The project also helped strengthen women’s abilities to advance policies and secure resources critical to the needs of women and children in their communes. “I am proud that my proposal on scholarships for kids from poor families has been incorporated into the commune investment plan. Now the council is more open for funds for supporting women’s and children’s issues,” said Ms. Tren Mik, a commune councilor from Cha Ung Commune, O’chum District, Rattanak Kiri.

Woman Councilor in Cambodia

A woman commune councilor shares challenges in her district at a networking forum.

The project has also helped the commune councilors develop, sustain, and institutionalize their own support networks, which they lacked before. Having a place where women commune councilors can share best practices, receive training, talk about common issues, and develop solutions for certain problems together has been incredibly important for these women. The topics of the forums, set by the councilors themselves, included land conflicts, divorce, violence against women, gambling, maternal health, and education. Before the forums were held, only 60 percent of the participants said they were confident in expressing their opinions during council meetings. Now, 97 percent of participants say that they are much more confident and they reported receiving additional commune council committee assignments as the commune chiefs saw their growing capacity and effectiveness.

Whether or not the government will achieve all of the goals of the Neary Rattanak III by the end of this year is yet to be seen, but witnessing these women councilors find their confidence and raise their voice as leaders gives me a great optimism and a positive outlook for future generations of women in Cambodia.

Moul Samneang is a senior program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Cambodia office. She can be reached at smoul@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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