Thida Khus: Putting women in the driving seat in Cambodia

Women in Cambodia have been making strenuous efforts to overcome local opposition to promote women and support girls’ secondary education as a way of putting development goals into action[i]. They are calling on outside help to make this happen.

staff_01-150x150As Thida Khus, Chair of the Cambodian Committee to Promote Women in Politics (CPWP), explains, when we met her in Phnom Penh, “When we started work to get more women involved in decision-making at the national and local levels in the early 2000s the men in the political parties used scare tactics to convince us that politics was not for women. They said a woman’s place was in the home, and women didn’t understand how politics worked. There were also some women who thought their role was to do the backroom work to support the men in political parties”.

As well as chairing the CPWP, Thida is currently the Executive Director of SILAKA, an organisation which offers training to strengthen NGOs and individuals as a way of building up national structures and promoting peace in the country.

Gender equality embedded in Cambodian history

“People also accused us of importing Western ideas about gender equality”, she said. “So we dug out our history and language and found that Cambodia had been a matriarchal society – between the first and sixth centuries, you had to be female to be a ruler. We pointed out that at that time we were prosperous socially and economically and wanted to go back to our roots, so men stopped saying that we were bringing in Western Ideas”.

The CPWP, which was set up in the early 2000s called on SILAKA to run training workshops to help candidates run for local elections, and raise awareness about the positive role that women play in politics. As a result the number of women running for office at the commune level increased from 16% in 2002 to 21% in 2007, and those elected from 8% to 15%, but more recently the CPWP has found it hard to crack the nut of reaching the target of women making up 25% of commune councillors.

Its programme is ambitious, as CPWP is campaigning for equal numbers of men and women elected, as laid down in the Cambodian Constitution. It believes that you should aim high – if you ask for parity, you are more likely to get 30%, but if your target is 30%, then you will get 20%.

Another hurdle is political corruption. In a system where votes are cast for party lists not individuals, prospective candidates pay to be ranked higher on the list. To combat this the CPWP is advocating for a ‘zipper system’ (man-woman-man-woman) to ensure that 50% of the candidates are women.

Women politicians could change the political priorities from military to public services

The Committee has been doubling its efforts through public forums, where the public is informed about the importance of getting more women in power. Thida is optimistic that having more women in the driving seat would herald a change in political direction “Yes, currently the government prioritises military spending as they fear external threats. However, people don’t want their taxes used to buy arms, to go to war with our neighbours. Cambodian women know better than anyone else about the effects of war, this is very fresh in our minds”, she said (referring to the US bombing, which allowed the rise of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and the following years of conflict).

“Women want the money to be used to improve public services. Many of them had to raise their children on their own as their men were all killed. We can’t defeat our neighbours with military might. We have to use the law to defeat Thailand or Vietnam. They only way for us to defend our territories is to strengthen the people inside through the rule of law – but outside countries benefit by selling us arms, helicopters, bullets and tanks.. “

When I suggested that the first female British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had a reputation as a warmonger, Thida retorted sharply: “I’m not talking about Margaret Thatcher, I’m talking about Cambodia, which is very different. Besides, I’ve heard that she was not sensitive to other women, as she took a masculine approach”

Support from donors, like-minded organisations and governments

The women of Cambodia need the support of bodies outside Cambodia. First, they want to link up with like-minded organisations, in the region and internationally for support and to share experiences and ideas. Secondly, they realise that outside pressure is needed to push the government to strengthen the democratic institutions.

“There must be more accountability – you have to get the government to be accountable to people, and you need to strengthen the people to demand this. We need real indicators for accountability and for gender justice, so people have access to their rights and aren’t sold as slaves” says Thida. “Donors must insist that there is more political accountability, which will also help stem the tide of corruption”, she urged.

Getting more girls into secondary education

One reason for the dearth of women in politics is the lack of decent education for girls, which leaves them without the skills or confidence to enter politics. So a crucial target of the Millennium Development Goals and the future Sustainable Development Goals is getting more girls into secondary education. While girls’ enrolment at primary level is very high and level with boys – up to 98% according to the World Bank; for secondary education this falls to around 17% in some areas.

This is partly because of the view that girls do not need education and partly because of problems with the education system. Many people complain that it is weak, corrupt and inefficient. As teachers’ salaries are very low, they supplement these by offering children in their classes additional ‘private classes’ and selling them educational materials.

There is also an urban/rural divide, with better secondary education in the cities, as a result, there is a higher drop-out rate in the countryside. This is particularly acute for girls, where the lack of secondary education has resulted in many going to Singapore and Malaysia, (approximately 30,000) as domestic workers. In Malaysia there have been complaints about their being subject to abuse and having their passports confiscated by their employers, leaving them vulnerable to arrest, without any means of proving their legal status. In addition many young women go to Thailand to work in the sex industry or the fishing industry.

Forming coalitions to get the Sustainable Development Goals to work for women

Women in Cambodia believe that a stand-alone goal on gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment within the SDGs is needed to address these issues. At the same time strong mechanisms are needed to support women to enter politics, and to get more government accountability to improve education to help young women.

In current SDG discussions there are proposals for private companies to offer support for some of the initiatives. Thida hopes they will form coalitions with donors, foundations and with the Cambodian government to support measures to get more women into politics and more girls into secondary education. These targets should be monitored with the use of gender-equality indicators. Only in this way will the lot of women and girls improve in this war-torn country.

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[i] Millennium Development Goal 3: Promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, including a target on education and additional indicators on women’s employment and political representation.

Sustainable Development Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

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