Lawmakers Told to Act on Gender Disparity

Following a tumble in the number of women elected as members of the National Assembly in last year’s national election, a group of civil society organizations Wednesday called on the newly formed parliament to take action to ensure that women have due representation in future ballots.

The Committee to Promote Women in Politics (CPWP) asked political leaders to amend the Constitution and election laws in an effort to guarantee that the portion of female representatives begins to reflect the number of female voters.

Women make up just 20 percent of the 123 National Assembly lawmakers—18 from the ruling CPP and seven from the opposition CNRP—compared with 22 percent after the 2008 national election.

As a result, Cambodia has failed to meet the Millennium Development Goal of 30 percent female representation in the National Assembly by 2015.

According to the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), this is partly because the major parties nominated few female candidates, failed to rank women candidates high enough on their party lists and neglected to nominate any woman in some of the country’s 23 provinces and Phnom Penh.

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, CPWP chairwoman Thida Khus said unequal gender representation was worse at the sub-national level, where females make up only 13 percent of district and provincial councillors and 17 percent of the country’s 16,000 commune officials.

The CPWP is calling on the CPP and CNRP to amend the fifth paragraph of Article 34 of the Constitution, which states: “Provisions restricting the right to vote and to stand for the election shall be defined in the Electoral law.”

The committee wants to see more progressive language introduced to the Article, with the existing phrase “provisions restricting” being followed by the words “or advancing.” Such an amendment would allow election laws to be changed to promote affirmative action for women, she said.

Ms. Khus said the CPWP wanted action in several areas, most importantly listing male and female candidates alternately in descending order of priority as determined by the political party on ballot papers.

“[We] request them to amend this one to ensure that we have equality between men and women to get listed in political parties’ candidate lists for elections,” she said.

Koul Panha, executive director of the Comfrel, said legal changes would provide a clear mechanism to promote women’s political advancement.

“We think that if we continue to wait for the will of political parties, leaders, politicians, government leaders and National Assembly leaders to promote women into leadership roles, representation of women at all levels will be not enough,” Mr. Panha said.

The CPWP plans to seek a meeting with leaders of the ruling and opposition parties if they fail to respond to their request, and also start a street campaign to put pressure on the politicians.

CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun, a spokesman for the National Assembly, said that alternating male and female candidates on ballots was a matter for the party leaders.

“From the point of my view, I think they should give space for the two parties to work on this,” he said.

Mr. Vun said, however, that civil society should not try to force politicians to act, as merit should determine which candidates are put forward in elections.

“We respect both men and women who really have the capacity to work for the country,” he said.

CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, a former minister of women’s affairs, said any action to involve more women in politics was welcome, and encouraged the civil society groups to submit their recommendations to the party.

“The CNRP is aware [of this issue] and we want to promote and support gender nondiscrimination and allow more women to participate,” she said.

Ms. Sochua added that prior to last year’s election, her party had encouraged women from civil society to put themselves forward as candidates, but warned that politics was a competitive game.

“You have to put in the hours, you have to bring in the votes,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Holly Robertson)

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