SIEM REAP, Cambodia – In rural Cambodia, the women’s revolution is coming. It’s not happening with pink pussy hats, placards and chanting. Instead, it’s driven by quiet determination and a hunger to learn.
They are gathered on the second floor of a newly rented house in Siem Reap. As removal men heave filing cabinets and desks up the stairs, a group of 15 women, aged between 25 and 49 years old, sits on the floor, scribbling notes and taking turns to role-play an interview scenario as journalist and political candidate.
“So, what about the issue of migration in your community? What do you plan to do about that?” asks one, playing the hard-hitting reporter.
“I will talk to them about the risks and how to prepare themselves,” her partner answers, pushing through her shyness. “And I will encourage them to get the right paperwork. Exploitation is a big issue when people travel illegally.”
Run by Banteay Srei, a local NGO devoted to women’s leadership, these three-day workshops are helping prepare participants for the upcoming commune elections, Cambodia’s version of local polls. The women at today’s training session have all put themselves forward as candidates for the June vote, with the four main political parties represented. Here, they will get advice on how to distill their policies into a clear message and how to handle themselves with the media, through a series of practical exercises and gentle feedback.
For Chong Csaev, 33, the workshops are a revelation. A mother of five whose village is stricken by poverty, she says she never dreamed she could be a candidate. “I see so many issues in my community and I want to help women especially,” she says. “But before, I knew nothing, I had no confidence. Now I feel more prepared. I’m so happy.”
Almost 80 percent of Cambodia’s population live in rural areas and are heavily disadvantaged in terms of education, women’s rights and work opportunities. So getting women to participate in local decision-making is critical, says Ponnary Pat, Banteay Srei’s executive director.
“If you look at the power structure in our country, not just the household level but also at a country level, it is mainly men who take on the leadership role. So women don’t have a strong voice and their concerns are not taken into account,” she says.
“But when you have a woman in leadership, other women can more easily voice their concerns to [her] and get a more concrete, advanced result. She can advocate and she can bring about change.”
It’s a long-term strategy. Banteay Srei might work with a particular woman for up to a dozen years, initially encouraging her to take part in local village affairs as a volunteer, and then later moving up to positions such as village chief. If the participant struggles to read and write, the organization can support her with tutoring and mentoring. The group also educates women’s husbands on how a gender balance at home leads to better relationships and greater economic outcomes for their families.
“Maybe a woman can’t read or write, but she works very hard for her community, has a high level of commitment, is aware of the issues and can mobilize people. Then there’s a big chance for her to succeed,” Pat says.
Eang Pish, 49, is something of a poster child for the workshop. A mother of four and grandmother to three, she only reached fourth grade before dropping out of school, her education cut short by the actions of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and the country’s multiple wars. Yet over the past 12 years, she has gone from being a community volunteer to a community representative, then committee member of her local rice co-op, and finally deputy village chief. The June elections mark her first run at the commune level.
“For women who are poor and vulnerable, it is difficult for them to raise their concerns and speak to the commune chief if he is a man,” Pish says. “If I am elected, I will be able to do more and speak more for their needs, and bring them into the commune’s development plan.”
With women making up only 4.2 percent of the candidates elected to commune chief in the more recent election in 2012, the participants at the Banteay Srei workshop – along with those who run it – are determined to change the face of Cambodia’s local governance.
“Women are coming out in greater numbers at the village meetings. They are active in their community and raising their voices,” says Pat. “We have a situation now that if a political party wants to succeed, they have to provide more opportunities to women and promote female candidates. It makes them more popular and will get them more votes.”