KAMPOT, Cambodia — Chan Kanha is the deputy mayor for the Cambodian People’s Party in this small port town, which sits along Cambodia’s southern coast and still retains much of its French colonial architecture. The Cambodian People’s Party, or CCP, is led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has run the country for the last 33 years. He claimed victory again in an election in August, winning an estimated 100 of 125 parliamentary seats in what could only be described as a single-party election. The party claims to have won 80 percent of the vote.
Apart from a serious lack of plurality, what Cambodian politics is largely missing is women. In the Parliament, which is controlled by the Party, for example, only eight of the 58 senators are women.
Kanha is one of the few female cadres to have risen to a senior position in the party. Originally from Kampot, she grew up in a poor family without a father. She moved to Phnom Penh, the capital, to go to university after winning a scholarship. She joined the Party there and began her career in politics. It hasn’t been easy, however, as overcoming social and cultural boundaries has proved to be one of the biggest challenges for Kanha in Kampot, which has a population of about 50,000. Yet, at 33 years old, Kanha, by Cambodian standards, has made strides for women.
Recently married, her main focus as deputy mayor is helping women and children who live in poverty by providing food and medical assistance. She says that being able to help people is the most important part of her job.
As we sit on a balcony in Kampot, with coconut trees and a pagoda shimmering in the background, illustrative of Cambodia’s tropical and Buddhist tradition, Kanha said in an interview that getting ahead in politics as a woman in Cambodia requires perseverance and not being deterred by people who tell you that you can’t do it. That advice could be applied to women everywhere.
The interview, conducted in English through a translator, was edited and condensed.
Q: What are some of the greatest challenges facing women who try to enter politics in Cambodia?
A: There are a number of challenges. The first is the culture, which says that women should be quiet and submissive. Women don’t usually get a higher education and usually only go to grade 9, sometimes grade 12. Parents also don’t want girls to study in higher education because they think that women can’t do the same work as men. They think that women should always stay at home and take care of the children. The government has also kept women out of politics, though this is slowly changing. The government is now saying that there should be 30 or 40 percent of women in government; right now, there is only around 20 percent. So, the reality is that most women don’t try to be in politics because they usually have little education and don’t have the skills or the confidence to build a future on their own. So they end up depending on their family and their husband.
But other things are changing. There are now many girls in grade 12 who are going to university. We are seeing other changes as well, such as divorce. As women are becoming more educated and open-minded, divorce is increasing.
Q: Why did you enter politics and how did you overcome the hurdles?
A: I was a good student in high school and after grade 12, I got a scholarship to study at university, but my mother didn’t allow me to study. I grew up without a father and because we were poor, it was difficult to study in Phnom Penh without any support, so my mother said no. She wanted me to be a primary-school teacher. I cried for three days. But when my mother found out that somebody else got a scholarship as well and that girl and I could go to Phnom Penh together, she let me go.
I studied biology for four years in Phnom Penh and then trained to become a teacher. I started to teach in 2010 and joined the Cambodian People’s Party. I began to do many activities with them, and one day, the mayor of Kampot asked if I wanted to become involved with politics. He offered me the job of deputy mayor.
I said yes, partly because of my mother’s story. She lived through the Khmer Rouge era, a really bad time. My mother’s first husband was killed by the Khmer Rouge. He was in the national army, so the Khmer Rouge said that he betrayed them, so they killed him. Four of her brothers and sisters died from hunger. My mother said that the CCP saved Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, so it is for this reason that I joined the party. My sister is also in politics and is the chief of social affairs, in Kampot. There were many challenges entering government, however. Some of the teachers told me that I wouldn’t be able to do it or that I only got the position because of my sister.
Q: What are the most important issues facing Cambodian women and how are you trying to address them in your political agenda?
A: The most difficult thing for women is being able to make their own decisions. When women have problems, they speak to the leaders of their communities and they listen, but they [leaders] don’t do anything. Domestic violence is a problem for women in Cambodia. The role of the woman in the family is also a problem: women do everything and men don’t do anything. Sexual harassment is a problem in Cambodian society and so is sexual assault. If someone is sexually assaulted, they won’t speak out about it. In villages, if a woman is raped, they make her marry the rapist. Or else the man has to pay a fine. In Cambodia, a woman has to be a virgin to get married, so if she is raped, she can’t get married. So often, a victim of sexual harassment or assault will say nothing and the man will go free.
It’s happening less and less, but it’s still happening. If there are people around a woman or a girl who know that she has been assaulted, then they will try to speak up for her. There are laws against sexual assault but corruption is a problem. Men can just pay. Women also often just take the money because they don’t want to cause a big problem. The law is not strong enough to protect women. Many women who do speak out are often criticized and people complain about them. I want women to be strong.
Q: How has the growing Chinese influence in Cambodia affected women?
A: I’m really worried about it. There are many Cambodian women working as prostitutes. There are increasingly more casinos and clubs as well as karaoke bars that are being built by the Chinese, and there are women working as prostitutes in these bars. There is no law to stop sexual harassment, but I want there to be a law. I don’t know of anybody trying to make a law.
Q: What advice do you give to young Cambodian women who aspire to enter public life?
A: Get educated. When you have a high education, you can get the high-level jobs and they cannot criticize you anymore. You have to try and know what you want to do and you have to try and get that. It doesn’t matter what other people say, have a goal and do it. I have been able to do what I have done because of my own power and courage. I don’t care what other people say, I know what I want to do and I do it. I want to encourage women to encourage each other.
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Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and is the director of Project MonMa, a nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and politics from James Cook University in Queensland, and a master’s degree in international development from Deakin University in Victoria. She speaks English and Spanish.