Following the redistribution of seats held by the now-dissolved opposition, female representation in local politics increased slightly but remains low, according to figures obtained this week, with women’s rights organisations demanding sustainable improvement rather than minor victories born of an otherwise regrettable situation.
Of the 58 newly elected senators – all of whom belong to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party – only eight are women, compared to 10 in the last mandate.
After the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was forcibly dissolved amid international outcry in November, almost all of its 5,007 elected commune council seats were absorbed by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. After the CPP filled the vacated seats, female representation rose by almost 20 percent, from 1,940 female commune chiefs and councillors to 2,323, according to unpublished National Election Committee numbers obtained on Sunday.
However, as an overall share of elected commune officials, the number remains stubbornly low, at about 20 percent. In 2012, there were 2,038 female councillors, for a share of around 14 percent.
What’s more, the number should potentially have been higher in the first place, with a number of female candidates in both major parties telling The Post prior to the commune elections that they had been pushed down the ballot list to make way for male candidates, making their election highly unlikely.
One of those was Thong Somoeurn, a candidate from the Cambodian People’s Party in Koki commune in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district. After being pushed down from her first position on the ballot despite winning an internal vote, she was only elected as a regular commune council member in the June election. When the CNRP was dissolved, however, she rose to deputy commune chief in charge of security and order in her district.
“Because the two CNRP officials from the commune resigned, I now jumped into this position,” she said.
Even so, however, she still fell short of the commune chief position she would have held had she remained in the first position.
Despite women’s modest gains following the redistribution, the number of female commune chiefs barely changed, from 128 to 130, for a total share of less than 8 percent.
Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development Cambodia, said male politicians’ mindsets had to be changed to include women from the start. Women, she said, were often only entrusted with low-ranking positions, but not those higher up in the list. These lower-ranked women were only given opportunities because the CNRP was dissolved, which was itself an unprecedented political development.
“We don’t want to wait for a chance, but we want to see proper opportunities for women,” she said.
Another female politician, Choung Saony, said she too failed to win a position in June, but has now been elevated to deputy commune chief in Kok Banteay commune, in Kampong Chhnang’s Rolea Ba’ier district.
“I am happy,” the 28-year-old said, adding that she didn’t care that she only got the position because the CNRP was dissolved “as long as I can engage for my commune’s development”.
Thida Khus, of women’s rights organisation Silaka, said the increase was important, especially on the local level, to represent interests of women and children, but noted there was also “less competition now, as it’s only the ruling party”.
And she pointed out that although the number had increased in the communes, it had decreased at the National Assembly, and potentially at the Senate, following the dissolution of the CNRP.
Indeed, according to figures released by the National Election Committee on Saturday, only eight out of the 58 newly elected senators are female, compared to 10 of the 57 senators elected during the last mandate. The Senate also has two members nominated by the King – one of whom is a woman in this mandate, compared to none in the last – and two more nominated directly by the National Assembly, which has yet to announce its nominees for the current mandate.
When the CNRP’s 55 National Assembly seats were redistributed last year, only two of its seats were given to women. Previously women had held seven.
Sonket Sereyleak, of election monitor Comfrel, welcomed the increase of women councillors, but acknowledged it was based on an unfortunate development.
“I’m unhappy with what happened relating to the dissolution of the CNRP, but our women’s group will still continue our journey to lobby and advocate . . . to promote women in decision-making,” she said.
Sereyleak also highlighted that a mere increase wasn’t enough. Many women in politics, she said, were cut off from the responsibilities and authority they would usually enjoy with their positions. “We worry about this,” she said.