The Cambodian Women's Experience

by Ung Yok Khoan (1)

Madame Chairwoman; dear sisters and friends.

I'm Yok Khoan Ung, Director of the training unit of Khemara, a Cambodian NGO for the advancement of women in Cambodia, since my repatriation in November 1992.

I'm very excited to be at the Congress for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics and I thank you Madame Chairwoman for providing me this great opportunity to share my brief personal experiences on mass mobilizing women.

These are my lifetime experiences.

After the invasion of the communists in our country and from 1979 to 1992 I escaped from my lovely country to the West border.

There, I was elected to be the President of the Khmer Women Association in the Refugees Camp at the Thai-Khmer border from 1982 to 1992 where I worked on women's issues. We had good cooperation and assistance from the United Nations to provide and implement many kinds of programs of basic vocational skill training, women, adult, health and child education, and social services to the refugee women.

Along these programs, in 1990 up to today I was also selected to be a member of the Executive Bureau of a political party named LDP which stands for Liberal Democratic Party.

I was working on opening up the mind of Khmer people, especially women, on democracy, human rights, women an children's rights and development in terms of rebuilding Cambodia.

In October 1991, nineteen nations and the four Cambodian factions signed the UN Agreement on Cambodia which called for disarmament and repatriation of nearly 370,000 refugees from Thailand and the holding of democratic elections.

Free elections took place in May 1993. Women enthusiastically turned up to vote. In all 54% of registered voters were women and among the four and half million people who voted, 58% were women.

Why did so many of them turn up to vote?

They did because it was a life and death situation. Cambodian has been at war for the last two-and-a-half decades and during this period many of their fathers, husbands, and sons, were killed or died because of this. Women, too died and suffered in this conflict. But many more men died and this has caused a demographic imbalance. Sixty five percent (65%) of the population are women and 35% of households are headed by females.

What is more important is that nearly 50% of the population of Cambodia is under the age of 15.

After so many years of war and destruction women are thirsty for peace. The last two-and-a-half decades have been consumed with physical and economic survival. Little energy was left for women to struggle for full recognition of their rights, participation in the national economic and social life, and for participation in political decision-making. Gender sensitization and related issue have been neglected and are not on the national agenda.

Another reason for the increasing participation of women in the elections is that conditions have been created to make them believe that their votes can make a difference. This was the first time that this awareness dawned on them. In the 1960's my mother was to told to go to the polling booth to cast her vote for such and such a person. She did not know what she was voting for. She was not aware of the manifestoes offered by different political parties. She had just heard of the person's name and was told to vote.

Last year it was different. The United Nations and many women's groups went down to the grassroots to explain the meaning of the election and how the result would be a turning point in the history of Cambodia and the effects it will have on women.

Women's groups including mine launched a campaign to educate women on the significance of the election. We stressed the fact that their vote is a powerful toll in determining the future of their nation. This led them to realize their power, and regain their self-esteem.

These were our activities:

As a step towards educating the public about the need to exercise their vote, UNTAC brought out a booklet. This booklet emphasized that the right to vote is a basic human right and that one is free to cast one's vote for the person of one's choice. Nobody can influence that decision or but that vote.

Prior to the elections women joined hands with Buddhist monks and nuns in launching a Dhamayatra (Pilgrimage of Truth) for reassuring and encouraging people to cast their votes for peace. It was a time of threat and intimidation.

By this time human rights groups were active in the country and had launched human rights educational programmes. It was an opportunity for the women's movement to collaborate with the human rights organizations and strengthen the campaign to establish a democratic system of government. Today we have an action plan for this women's movement to improve the training of women leaders, activists and volunteers to strengthen the women's network from the grassroots to the top all over the country and the world.

We explained the desperate need for national reconstruction which cannot be fully achieved without women's contributions. And the elections were the first step towards that.

We organized mobile election teams to reach every corner of the country in order to get the above messages across.

Lessons learned:

The result was good. Fifty eight percent (58%) of voters were women. This demonstrated the strength and capabilities of Cambodian women in mobilizing women at the grassroots.

Regrettably however, not many women were put forwards as candidates. Among the candidates of the twenty or so political parties just 5% of candidates were women. And only 4% won seat in the parliament. In the 120-members national assembly, only 5 are women. They are all here.

Nonetheless women carried on the momentum created prior to the elections to launch a campaign to democratize the constitution-writing process. They held public meetings in villages to get the views of men and women on the Constitution. As a result of these efforts, we now have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world which recognize that men and women are equal in all fields and that housework is equal in stature to paid work.

However, Cambodian women still have a lot to do ensure the implementation of the Constitution. An important lesson we learnt was the need to carry forward the momentum created prior to the elections and during the Constitution-writing process.

After the two momentous events, women slipped back to the background. We did not seize the moment and just let the course of events to pass us by. It is an opportunity missed.

After realizing the role they could play, the women began to examine and analyse the parties' manifestoes and the impact these would make on women, economically and socially.

In terms of my own political party, its manifesto declared:

Right and Freedom

The Administration

Social Welfare

Culture and Education

How are we going to change this situation of complacency?

We realize that we should have carried forward our grassroots activities of education and empowerment. It is this process that would lead to a situation whereby more and more women would join the political mainstream.

After joining the political mainstream are we going to accept the current dirty and corrupt politics?

We will not. We will try to change the system according to our own rules of the game. Only then will we be able to make a genuine and lasting contribution to the advancement of women.

Therefore, women's role in peace building is important. But unfortunately no efforts has been made to involve women in the current peace talks.

As I already said, politics in Cambodia means life and death because women are the mainstays of Cambodian society. They are the pillar of the family and home. They have contributed more than their share of the work and carry a large part of the burden and yet even the media ignore them. No mention was ever made of the importance of their role and influence, although local TV and radio stations had conducted discussions and debates on women's issues with the different political parties.

So, unless the political mainstream is transformed, nothing will happen. And women already in politics should be retrained to work for gender issues. There are now 17 women's groups in Cambodian. Women are peace lovers, unlike men, who want power and in their quest for it, are ready to send others to get killed.

The time to change is now: go from passive to an active role, get into the system and flight within it, change the political mainstream work from the grassroots up, form an alliance with Human Rights groups, raise the consciousness and awareness of women.

This is a long-term commitment which requires not only determination, patience and human resources but also a strong belief and an unwavering faith in the goal and choice made. It will be a difficult learning process in this male-dominated world but an enriching experience where dedication, courage and good motivations could lift all the barriers and make traditions more flexible and responsive. Furthermore, with the support, cooperation, collaboration and advice from the women's groups in Asia Pacific region along with other sisters elsewhere, women can and will make the world a better place to live in.


1. Ms. Ung Yok Khoan was the director of the Training Unit of KHEMARA, a Cambodian NGO for the advancement of women. In 1979, she fled from Cambodia to the West border. In the refugee camp, she was elected as the President of the Khmer Women's Association from 1982 to 1992. She was also a member of the Executive Bureau of the Liberal Democratic Party in Cambodia. This paper was presented at the First Asia-Pacific Congress of Women in Politics, held 21-23 June 1994 in Manila, Philippines.


Home page, What's new, Our Activities, About CAPWIP, CIGGL, Women's Participation, Resources, Center staff, Contact us
Updated: 20Oct1999