Cambodian authorities must take sweeping measures to boost the number of women who sit in parliament if the country is to meet a key part of its global commitment to gender equality, advocates say.
Cambodia has pledged to ensure that at least 30 percent of legislators in its National Assembly are women by 2015. It represents part of Cambodia's promises under the global Millennium Development Goals — targets aimed at eradicating poverty — to which United Nations member states have committed.
But with only one National Assembly election remaining before the deadline — voters in this South-east Asian nation are scheduled to head to the polls in 2013 — advocates say Cambodia risks missing this crucial target if the government fails to enact extraordinary measures to boost the number of women in politics.
Opposition members and civil society groups are calling on the government to legislate strict quotas that would ensure enough women are elected. But the government here is vehemently opposed to use of the term 'quotas,' leaving advocates to walk a delicate line.
Drude Dahlerup, a political science professor at Stockholm University who has researched gender equality in political systems around the world, including Cambodia, said quotas are the most effective way for countries to show dramatic results in a short period of time.
In her native Sweden, for example, women represent 47 percent of legislators — one of the highest figures in the world. 'But it took a long time to achieve; it took 100 years,' Dahlerup said. 'Many countries are saying, ‘We aren't going to wait that long.''
Female lawmakers currently occupy 27 of 123 seats — or just under 22 percent — in the National Assembly following the most recent election in 2008. The figure represents a jump over Cambodia's first post-war national elections in 1993, when women occupied only five percent of seats. But reaching the 30 percent target by 2015 remains a challenge.
Dahlerup, who said she was asked by the Cambodian government to devise options to reach the goal, is recommending that authorities consider legislating some kind of quota system — though she, like other advocates, uses the more subtle term 'temporary special measures' in place of 'quotas.'
'Everywhere quotas are controversial, but I think that's because there's a misunderstanding that quotas are used to give women special favours,' Dahlerup said. 'I try to turn this around and say, ‘Why are men so over- represented?''
Cambodia's National Assembly is elected using a proportional representation system, whereby the electorate votes for a preferred party rather than individual candidates. The seats in multi-member districts are then filled from the parties' candidate lists.
Dahlerup is recommending that the government legislate rules that require political parties to set gender quotas for its candidates — women must make up no less than 30 percent and no more than 70 percent of a party's candidates. Additionally, the lists must be organised into a rank order system. Under one suggested option, the top two candidates cannot be of the same sex; under another, candidate rankings would alternate between male and female.
'I think you should have legislation that forces all political parties to do this,' Dahlerup said. 'This is trying to make equality (happen) and jump over the barriers that women face.' The recommendation for the 'temporary special measure' may comply with the government aversion to strict quotas.
Minister of Women's Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi said the government will not consider quotas, but she said some steps must be taken before the next election to boost the proportion of female parliamentarians.
'In Cambodia, we won't talk about a quota system,' she said during a gender workshop held this week to debate options for achieving the country's gender goals. 'It means you have to have 30 percent, or 40 percent. We cannot say we must do this.'
The minister acknowledged that 'temporary special measures,' which do not directly set aside seats in the National Assembly based on sex, are on the table.
'I agree we may have to have temporary measures so that we can achieve [the MDG]. There is only one election to go before 2015,' she said.
Thida Khus, secretary general of the Committee to Promote Women in Politics, said such affirmative action measures are necessary to ensuring more women can break into the 'old boys' club' of national politics.
'It threatens some of the men, who are the gatekeepers of the political parties right now,' she said. 'Are you asking them to let go of their power to make way for women?' The government's current education and training efforts to encourage female politicians may simply be inadequate, she said.
'They do capacity building. They do awareness. But we will not meet the 30 percent goal in 2013 if we do not have special measures and more affirmative action,' she added.
Mu Sochua, a former Minister of Women's Affairs who has become one of the government's most outspoken critics in opposition, said she believes quotas are necessary, but such measures alone will not address long-standing problems involving women's representation.
'I don't think quotas alone are enough,' she said. 'Female politicians have to make themselves accountable to women.'
Though there may be 27 female lawmakers in parliament now, few of them are publicly vocal on crucial issues like violence against women, she said.
'They are lawmakers but they rarely speak,' Mu said. 'Look at land issues. Look at migration. Poverty has the face of a woman. You cannot just close your eyes to it.'